Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.
Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.
The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.
I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.
Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:
And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses: