ANTON: A Young Boy, His Friend & the Russian Revolution - by Dale Eisler, 2010. In a land laid waste by the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, economic calamity and famine, a young boy tries to cope with a reality of violence and suffering he cannot understand. Together with his friend, he slowly begins to understand the truth of his life in a small, German-speaking village on the Russian steppes. The two share a friendship deepened by the misery endured in an adult world gone mad. Soft cover - 350 pages.
Anton Schergevitch says his life began on July 31, 1919 at 11:16 in the morning, when he was 4 years, 5 months, and 9 days old. That was the day a contingent of Bolsheviks rode into his village, Fischer-Frantzen, on the Kutschurgan River, not far from the Black Sea. He watched as they tied the hands of his father Nikolas and 11 more men behind their backs then shot them in the head. Why? because they were kulaks, prosperous farmers. Days later, they shot Anton’s older brother and a number of other young men, delivered their bodies to his village, and set them afire. Anton’s mother Christina and her 9 children were now very alone.
At the center of this story is the friendship between Anton and his friend Kaza, a child from a Muslim family, who lives just across the road. The boys lie on their backs and look at clouds, play soccer, wade in the shallow Andre River, and peek out at the world from a special cave in Kaza’s father’s toolshed. The friendship buoys their spirits, but adult worries are never far from even such very young children.
Eisler understands the political context in which the Bolshevik revolution took place. He shows the harsh conditions communism visited upon a German Russian village, as well as on Russia as a whole. The book contains chapters in which we see the revolution through the eyes of Fischer-Frantzen’s parish priest and also those who believed their futures lay with the revolution. Communist ideologues saw prosperous ethnic German farmers as extensions of and potential collaborators with the German nationals that invaded from the west. It was not a stretch to believe them to be thieves who had stolen what was rightfully theirs.
Life in the Kutschurgan valley, during collectivization, became a sequence of work, anxiety, and mysterious killings, all while chronic hunger assailed its people. Germans realized, after awhile, that things were not likely to get better, and some got out. Christina and her 9 children, ages 21 to 11, six years after the murder of her husband, decided to trust a Jewish underground railroad and try to find a new life in Canada, where there were already close relatives.
Though the main character is between 4 and 11, this is not a book to hand casually to young people. There is bad language--the kind spoken among the coarse men of this time and place--and violence. (Nobody in Bolshevik Ukraine, outside their families, worried about the negative psychological effect of murder and torture on fragile youth.) But this story is far more than a recounting of horrors. Eisler was in contact with a Canadian family who had heard bits and pieces of their grandfather’s memories, and he incorporated them into his story. It is an excellent novel that will aid your understanding of how ordinary humans were affected by what some hoped was a system that would eventually solve all of humanity’s problems. It also shows the anchor a friendship can provide when the world seems to be crashing.
February 28, 2012
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