Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan, 288 pp, RL 4

While Angel on the Square ends the story of Ekaterina Ivanova, or Katya, on a note of love and hope, the sad fate of Katya's best friend, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolavena, or Stana, and the rest of the Romanov family is like a ghost in the room throughout this entire, well crafted, richly detailed work of historical fiction from the master of that genre for young adults, Gloria Whelan. In 2000 Whelan won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for Homeless Bird, set in present day India. While the story of Koly and her struggle to make a life for herself after she becomes a teenage widow and thus outcast is fascinating, I found the historical aspects of Angel on the Square to be more compelling.

As a child in the 1980s, I remember being fascinated by a documentary on television about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed she was Anastasia, Tsar Nicholas' youngest daughter and told a detailed story of how she survived the mass execution of the royal family and a handful of their servants by the Bolsheviks on July 16, 1918. Other than that and the animated movie that came out in the 1990s, I learned nothing more about the family or the events that lead to their deaths until I read Angel on the Square and was compelled to seek out more information (albeit only through Wikipedia... I don't have time to read whole books on history for pleasure anymore. Why do you think I started reading kid's books in the first place? I can finish them in a few days and feel a minor sense of accomplishment on a weekly basis when I do!) Read at the right time and the right age, I have no doubt that Angel on the Square will inspire your child to make inquiries, with your help, into this troubled period in Russia's past.

Because of the specific historical events and real people who populate this book, Angel on the Square has a less personal feel than Whelan's other books, such as Listening for Lions, which follows the fate of Rachel Sheridan, the daughter of a doctor and nurse in Africa who minister to the Masai and Kikuyu tribes and perish in 1919 during the great influenza epidemic and the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Homeless Bird, which tells the story of Koly, a thirteen year old Indian girl who is married off so that there will be more food on the table for her family, and her struggle to survive after her sick husband, also a child, dies and she is left alone on the streets, her dowry gone. Ultimately, I think that being the daughter of a Lady in Waiting to the Empress and playmate of Anastasia's gives Katya the distance from the royal family and their sad fates needed to keep Angel on the Square from being completely depressing. As it is, Katya and her mother's experiences from 1913 when Katya is twelve through to 1918, are troubling enough. Whelan manages the feat of portraying the perspectives of the peasants, the aristocratic land owners and the royalty in a masterful and subdued way that incorporates many perspectives and eventually empathy among those who find themselves in the decimated country, both environment and population, that Russia is by the time the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is signed in March of 1918, ending Russia's involvement in the war.

Angel on the Square begins in the winter of 1913 with a twelve year old Katya standing on the balcony of her mother's familial mansion, looking across St Petersburg's main avenue, the Nevsky Prospekt, to the Kazan Cathedral where her mother is already ensconced, waiting to celebrate the tercentenary of the rule of the Romanov family. At her side is Misha, or Mikhail Sergeyevich Gnedich, the son of Katya's mother's best friend who has perished, along with the fathers of both of the children, years earlier. Misha, four years older than Katya, has revolutionary ideas, spends time with the workers and never misses a chance to point out to her how spoiled and unaware of the suffering of others she is. When Katya's mother is invited to be a Lady in Waiting to Empress Alexandra and Katya the special friend of Duchess Anastasia, one year younger than her, Misha warns that she will become nothing more than a glorified sluzhanka, a female servant, to her. What Katya finds over the next five years of living with the royals, being tutored in French and drawing along with the Tsar's daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia (who, I learned, sometimes referred to themselves using the acronym for their names, OTMA) is a family who love and care for each other deeply. The Tsar is a kindly father who enjoys teaching his children geography based on his own travels and delights in photography, taking thousands of pictures in his lifetime and the Empress is a mother who, while gentle hearted and interested in bringing up her children in a simple household with few luxuries, is consumed with anguish over the condition of her son Alexei, a hemophiliac who suffers painfully. She also finds two people so consumed with their family life that they seem to willfully ignore the plight of their people who so overtaxed that they cannot afford to farm the land they rent or allow their children to attend school instead of work in a rag shop. Then there is Rasputin. Although no one will share their true feelings about him to the Empress, who so fervently believes in his power to heal that she allows him to tell her how to direct the Duma, the Russian parliament, when her husband is at the warfront. In addition to her German heritage, her reliance on Rasputin for decision making only furthers the population's suspicion of and hatred for her.

The story follows Katya and the fates of the Romanovs as they vacation at their palace on the Crimea, go yachting on the Black Sea and attend many ballets up until the abdication of the Tsar and the family's exile from Siberia, where Katya and her mother remained faithful, even helping the Empress sew the family's jewels into the corsets and hems of her daughters' dresses before their final destination of Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, unbeknownst to Katya, they would be executed. While this is playing out, we watch Katya grow and mature, gradually, with the help of Misha, opening her eyes to the hardships of the people of Russia. In her own small ways she tries to right the wrongs that she sees, but, she also realizes that she is helpless to make any changes or help anyone in distress beyond the work that she and the Duchesses and the Empress do at the beginning of the war when they go to work in the Catherine Palace, now a military hospital. Katya and her story are important and absorbing and this is what will draw in young readers who know little or nothing about this time in history. Whelan, who must spend months researching her books, evokes the time and place with incomparable skill and, as always, there is a glossary at the back of the book defining the words from the foreign language that she has incorporated into her book. I had the pleasure of listening to as well as reading Angel on the Square and found the narrator's pronunciation of the Russian words especially enlightening.

Like Whelan's other books, Angel on the Square ends almost where it begins, with the angel on the square, in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Who is this angel? She is a bronze sculpture perched high atop a square granite pillar that sits in the middle of the square in front of the Winter Palace. She was put there to celebrate Russia's victory over Napoleon. As Lidya, Katya's governess tells her when she is a little girl, "Difficult times and even wars may come to the city, but as long as the angel watches over St Petersburg, the city will survive."

Readers who like this book might also like:

A Countess Below Stairs, by Eva Ibbotson. This story is about a girl who is also part of the Russian aristocracy and her life after she flees to London and works as a maid to survive. It also has a romantic story line and is therefore better for readers 12+.

The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson. Set in Austria, this has a similar feel to Angel on the Square, but the story is less dramatic. Annika is an orphan who is found by her "real" mother when she is twelve. The Star of Kazan is a famous emerald that was given to Annika's aging neighbor by a Russian Count, who then gave it to Annika. This book is perfect for readers who loved Frances Hodgeson Burnett's A Little Princess.

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan

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