The Blackbird Women by Anne Blankman
The Blackbird Girls kidnap readers to the shadows of Chernobyl and the worst nuclear disaster in the world.
The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman. Viking, 2020, 334 pages.
Reading level: Intermediate, 10-12 years
Recommended for: 10-15 years
The city of Pripyat in Ukraine is one of the most prosperous in the Soviet Union because many of its citizens work in the nearby nuclear power plant (informally known as Chernobyl). But on Saturday morning in April, when Valentine Kaplan wakes up to a red sky in the south, she knows something is wrong. A closer look shows what it is: the power plant is on fire. And her father, who works the night shift, didn't come home. Although the government is incredibly slow to get information, she and her mother learn that Dad is on the way to a hospital in Kiev. After two more days, it is announced that the city should be evacuated, but there are no further instructions. In chaos, Valentina's mother becomes responsible for Oksana Savchenko, a schoolmate of her daughter and (without knowing mom) Valentina's worst enemy. Oksana despises the girl because the Kaplans are Jews. It's a tendency she learned from her father along with other, harder lessons. But now Oksana's father is dead at the power plant and her mother is a wicker case. The only person who intervenes to help is someone they should consider inferior.
Due to an alleged lack of space on the train, Valentina's mother cannot accompany her on her evacuation. She can think of no other place to send her to than Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and her own mother, who has estranged herself for a long time. What was supposed to be temporary was soon semi-permanent, and the “Blackbirl Girls” (a reference to Uzbek folk beliefs) have to learn to get along or live in misery.
The perspectives alternate between Valentina and Oksana in 1986 and another girl her age who lived through the German invasion in 1941. This girl's identity will soon become clear to astute readers, but they will keep reading because the story is compelling and powerful. Every girl has her own struggles with parents, circumstances, prejudices or God. There is great evil abroad, whether in the country or in the government or at home, but hope triumphs.
The author's note explains that the novel is based on the experiences of a childhood friend who survived the Chernobyl disaster and later immigrated to the United States. Anne Blankman also shares her husband's struggle with cancer at the time this book was in production – another testament to courage and persistence in the face of need.
Overall rating: 4.25 (of 5)
- Weltanschauung / moral value: 4.25
- Artistic / literary value: 4
- Oksaka is a victim of domestic violence by men. This is not sexual, but could be distracting to more sensitive readers. She will later experience kindness and acceptance in an Uzbek Muslim family. Unfortunately, there seems to be no Christians in history or none who practice the love of Christ.
- The Soviet government is seen as restrictive, presumptuous, and more concerned than the lives of its unfortunate subjects – in other words, realistic.
- There are some questions in the narrative about whether nuclear power is "safe". This was obviously not the case in Chernobyl. But does that mean that nuclear energy shouldn't be operated as a clean alternative to fossil fuels? It might be worthwhile to research something on this topic.
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