Finding Zasha begins with the September 1941 Siege of Leningrad. When German soldiers surround the city and cut off all supply lines, life becomes more difficult for everyone living in Leningrad, including Ivan, 12, and his mother, a factory worker. There is never enough food or heat and people are dying of starvation all over the city.
When her apartment is hit by a bomb, an elderly neighbor, called Auntie by everyone, moves in with them and begins to teach Ivan how to survive under siege, lesson she learned in WWI. As winter comes on, and the blockade holds, the three survive on the cans of beans Auntie had hidden away. Then one day, Ivan's mother announces that her job is moving to the Ural Mountains for safety and she must go with it - but without Ivan.
It is decided that Ivan will go live with his Uncle Boris and Auntie will live with her sister-in-law, Galina, as soon as the ice road across the frozen miles long Lake Ladoga can hold the weight of transport trucks and they can leave Leningrad. In January, the ice is finally thick enough and Ivan and Auntie set out on their journey. When no one meets them on the other side of the lake, they are fortunate enough to be offered a ride by a friendly sleigh owner.
At last, they arrive at Galina's home and Ivan settles in there for a few days before going on to Uncle Boris. He meets Polina, a girl about his age, who seems to know every nook and cranny of the area. It turns out that Polina, along with Galina and now Auntie, are working as partisans under the leadership of Petr, and along with other villagers. This is right up Ivan's alley and he too joins the partisans, staying at Galina's instead of traveling on to Uncle Boris.
Not long after this, the Germans arrive. Ivan has been playing his concertina for Auntie and Galina's pleasure and as the Germans roll in, their commander, Major Axel Recht, comes to the door to listen to Ivan play. With him are two German Shepard puppies. And when Commander Recht leaves, he takes Ivan with him.
Now, basically imprisoned in the makeshift Nazi headquarters, it is Ivan's hope to discover useful information he pass on the the partisans. Luckily, the cruel animal trainer who is to teach the puppies to hate and kill Russians, gets news that his son has been injured in fighting, and leaves immediately to be by his side. Ivan convinces the commander that he has experience training dogs and can do the job. And of course, Ivan begins to plot how he can get the puppies, Zasha and Thor, away from Recht's cruelty. This won't be easy - Recht is a sadistic, vengeful man, who loves his whip. And when he forces Ivan to watch a German soldier being whipped for a minor breach, the full extent of his cruelty becomes apparent.
But Ivan's plan of escape may happen sooner that he expects when Recht and his soldiers must leave the village soon to go help in the fighting at Tikhvin where things are not going well for the Germans. Can Ivan succeed in escaping Recht with both of his prized puppies?
This is a nice historical fiction work about Russia in WW2, an area not frequently explored in novels, though lately some really excellent works have been published. Another book depicting the terrible conditions in Russia during the war and how they impacted the ordinary Russians that people this story is always welcome. And certainly all the historical facts in this novel were spot on - the siege of Leningrad, the ice road over Lake Ladoga, the fighting at Tikhvin, a battle that helped turn the tide for the starving people in Leningrad. Be sure to read the Barrow's information and timeline about these things at the end of the book.
But Finding Zasha left me with very mixed feelings. I actually enjoyed the first part of it quite a bit, but I felt that the story was sometimes forced in order to create a history for Zasha. And I thought that the second half and the ending were rushed in order to get to the end of the war and the point at which Saving Zasha could begin. Although the story is filled with adventure and danger, I didn't find myself holding my breath at the places where that should have happened.
Sadly, I didn't care much for Ivan, either. Rather than strong and brave, I found him to be too headstrong, impulsive and public to be a partisan. And the other partisans accepting him as one struck me as took simplistic. He was basically an unknown to them and had proved himself trustworthy yet.
Yet, at the end of the day, I would recommend reading Finding Zasha. It is still a well written novel, and there is much to cull from this book for fans of Zasha and/or Randi Barrow. And I hear there is a third Zasha book on the horizon.
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an E-ARC from Net Galley
I found the concept of the ice road very intriguing and so I looked it up. It took Ivan and Auntie quite a long time to cross Lake Ladoga in a truck in Finding Zasha. The ice road was almost 17 miles long and was constructed under enemy fire in the winter of 1041/42. But it lived up to its nickname The Road of Life during the Siege of Leningrad when it allowed limited food supplies to be brought into the beleaguered city and allowed others to leave if they had places they could go to.
|The Ice Road - April 1942 (you can see the ice|
starting to melt)