Reviewed by Clare Brook
Sasha is the hero of Katrina Nannestad’s latest novel – Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief. Sasha is a six-year-old Russian boy caught up in World War II. The German army burns his village to the ground and he runs like a rabbit into the forest. Sasha would have died of starvation or exposure if passing Russian troops, under the command of Major Fyodor Gagarin (Papa Scruff), had not taken him to fight in the front line, and so he becomes a soldier.
In the first chapter, readers meet a traumatized Sasha in hospital recovering from a terrible injury. He is so distraught that he cannot talk. Some nights he gets out of bed and steals odd items, each one triggers memories from his disturbed past. He knows he is a thief but these objects bring back recollections of his flight into the forest, being adopted by the Red Army and helping the soldiers as they fight their way to Stalingrad, then on to Berlin when the Germans start to lose the war. The stolen items enable him to tell his story to the doctors and nurses and other patients in the hospital. Everyone is transfixed by his story, especially when they come to realize Sasha is the famous Angel of Stalingrad, as reported by journalist Igor Turgenov.
Nannestad tells the story through Sasha’s first-person perspective. She handles the atrocities of war delicately; although not explicit, it is clear that awful events take place and how they affect brave Sasha. The narrative begins in the present when Sasha is in hospital recovering from severe injury. There are separate sections for each group of memories, with pictures of the significant items that shape his story, such as: a bunch of flowers, a beetle, eight buttons, and a puffy pile of white feathers. As a section unfolds, the significance of each item becomes clear. This gives an interesting and easy-to-follow structure to the novel while foreshadowing the action of Sasha’s story. German aggression is handled through impressionistic, rather than precise, descriptions – hard boots, kicking, stomp, stomp, stomp. Nannestad describes in detail the beautiful aspects of nature, particularly flowers that are still blooming despite human ugliness.
Sasha is displaying great love and sympathy for all around him, perhaps a bit unbelievable, but the reality of war could make a child emotionally wiser than his years.
Through Sasha and Papa Scruffy, readers feel empathy for the soldiers on both sides of the war as Nannestad shows that in reality our common humanity trumps ideology. This is done particularly well.
Returning cruelty for cruelty makes the hatred and misery grow. Their misery. Our misery. Surely we have had enough sorrow to last a lifetime. To last a thousand lifetimes. We must choose a better way.
Whereas this is a work of fiction about a brave, kind-hearted boy who survived a terrible war, it is inspired by the life of a real boy, Sergey Aleshkov. Sergey was adopted by a regiment of Red Army soldiers, serving in a non-combat role fetching water, tending to the wounded and delivering mail. He was known for his warm-heart, lifting the spirits of fighting soldiers by singing and reciting poetry.
By Katrina Nannestad
Harper Collins Publishers Australia