Thursday, July 2, 2015

Michele Hathaway on LARA'S GIFT by Annemarie O'Brien

Lara’s Gift by Annemarie O’Brien combines many elements of good historical fiction, and fiction in general, that I have discussed over the last few months.
Lara dreams of succeeding her father as steward of the Woronzova Kennel and raising borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar, but when her brother is born her birthright is forfeit to him. Within moments the dogs are taken from her, she is relegated to the role of nursemaid with a future as a dressmaker and marriage to the midwife's nephew--who is afraid of dogs. But Lara also has a gift, which she has promised her father not to reveal, visions of future events involving the borzoi. In the end she must decide whether to accept this gift, break her promise, and risk everything to save her beloved dog, Zar. 

“I felt trapped, like I’d been thrown into a training pen with hungry wolves, not at all sure the wolves were muzzled.”

A Snapshot in Time

Perhaps one of the most remarkable, and appealing, aspects of  Lara’s Gift is that it is set in 1914 Russia and there isn't a whisper of war or conflict. It would not have served the story to include it, yet, with the world poised on the brink of WWI, and with the Russian Revolution only three years away, here we are on a lovely estate in a snapshot of time. Much historical fiction is set around conflict and war, yet I know children who avoid war stories, who long for windows on the past that show them everyday life--people who are different but at the same time not that different from themselves. They want to time travel to these places and do so with a good book.

The forest all in gold and purple clad;
The wind-sough's whisper in the treetops breezing
The brooding sky with swirling vapor sad,
The virgin frost, the sun's infrequent glinting
The hoary winter's distant ominous hinting. 

The setting is more than a picture, it is a character in the story. O'Brien captures this moment in Russian history with rich descriptions of church bells, icons, superstition, sleighs, fur-lined capes, champagne, and caviar. The world of the estate, the forest, and even the wind and snow frame and permeate the story.

This is the sort of book that teaches culture and history subtly. I would urge you not to neglect the Author’s Notes as O’Brien takes some liberties with culture and tradition, though not beyond its stretching point. There is great potential here for classroom discussion about historical fiction writer’s choices.


Stories that seamlessly incorporate other literature such as myths or poetry offer the reader caviar when they are already enjoying a feast. O’Brien does this with a sprinkling of Pushkin’s poems. Besides a delightful addition to the story, it is an excellent opportunity to introduce the poetry of Russia’s most famous poet, Aleksandr Pushkin.

As I discussed in my last post, multicultural literature affords a wonderful opportunity to incorporate foreign languages. Lara’s Gift is an excellent example of how an author can incorporate lodestone vocabulary (mother, father, yes, no, etc.) as well as words set in context that need no translation. Naturally, there is a good glossary. These words lend authenticity and spice to the story. In addition, there are many words in English that will build vocabulary for children--and adults. O'Brien even slips in a French sentence: J’aime c’est chiens plus que tout. You will too, by the end of the book!

Ta-ra! Ta-ra! the bugles blow.
Up since dawn, the hunters sit
their horses chafing at the bit'
the borzoi tug the leash to go. --Pushkin

By now, you are asking, yes, but what about the dogs? Right! Lara’s Gift is a coming of age story, but it is also very much about the borzoi. O’Brien captures their dancing feet, curly hair, and almond eyes, as well as their intelligence, keen sense of the hunt, and significance in Russian society.

Annemarie O'Brien with her borzoi!
In Lara’s time and place, wolves preyed on livestock, as we see by the end of Chapter 1. Now, of course, we value wolves for their beauty and the part they play in a healthy ecosystem. However, even today, ranchers contend with wolves. I believe this element opens the door on good discussion, especially for upper-middle-grade students.

It should be noted that a portion of the proceeds from Lara’s Gift are donated to the National Borzoi Rescue Foundation (, and the International Wolf Center ( This book would also dovetail splendidly with a visit to a kennel or wolf rescue.

"Trust my gift, I kept telling myself. It rang through my mind like a pealing bell in a blinding blizzard leading me home.”

You can find an educational guide for Lara's Gift here . Annemarie also recommends The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming as a companion non-fiction. I have barely begun to plumb the depths of Lara’s Gift, but I hope you’ll discover it all on your own. I’d love to pursue a conversation in the comments! Thank you Annemarie O’Brien for sharing your lovely book!


  1. I read and reviewed this wonderful book for The Children's Book Review some months ago. I enjoyed this book so much, and agree that being on the brink of WWI, it was refreshing to read a story simply about how life WAS at that point in time, at that point in history, in Russia. A world long gone, but evocative. You are so right about the landscape being one of the characters. I found it a compelling story.

    1. Elizabeth, I'm so glad you found these treasures, too. I'll be sure to look up your review. Thank you so much for your comments!

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