I thought Yulia Yakovleva’s Punishment of a Hunter was an excellent 1930’s-era Russian mystery, so I looked for more. But all I could find was The Raven’s Children, a children’s book.
In Stalinist Soviet Union, seven-year-old Shura lives with his older sister Tanya, his baby brother Bobka, and his parents. All of them are patriots, but one night his father disappears. The next day, their mother behaves oddly, packing a suitcase, saying she quit her job, but she doesn’t tell them anything. The family unusually has a two-room apartment with Shura and Tanya’s bedroom accessed by a wardrobe so the second room is not obvious. That night Shura is awakened to see someone being taken away in a black car. The next morning, their mother and Bobka are gone, and Shura overhears a neighbor saying that they were taken away by the Black Raven. Their neighbors won’t speak to them except the timid old lady down the hall, who gives them a purse of money from their mother with instructions to go to their aunt.
Neither child wants to go to the aunt, so they spend the day wandering around talking to the birds (who talk back), trying to find the Black Raven. Gradually, they understand that their parents are thought to be spies and traitors. They think there must be some mistake and if they find the Black Raven they can tell him so. Then when they arrive home at their apartment that night, they find their neighbor living in it.
I always go under an assumption that the age of the protagonist in a children’s book is roughly the age of its intended audience. That being said, I think that children that age would understand very little of this book and be terrified by some of it. And I’m not a person who thinks children shouldn’t be scared by books.
For one thing, Yakovleva slowly brings in an element of magical realism. The talking animals and even Shura becoming invisible and having people walk through him was okay. But Yakovleva makes metaphors become real, so ears and eyes appearing in the walls are really creepy. But the worms are the worst. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but some characters, once disappeared, stay disappeared.
Yakovleva wrote this novel because her grandfather had similar experiences as a child during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. This novel might work as a teaching tool, but I would advise it to be with discussions with an adult who has read up on the period. Otherwise, I don’t think children are going to understand this novel.
By the way, several adult Goodreads readers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on, and at least one of them said she was from a former Soviet country.