I love puppies and children, and Finding Zasha by Randi Barrow explores World War II through a different set of eyes.
Ivan, a 12 year old, and his mother live in Leningrad when the siege begins in September 1941. Because the factory where his mother works is being moved, he’s shipped out of Leningrad via the Ice Road to live with his Uncle Boris. He stops briefly in Vilanov, a (fictitious) Russian village that the Germans occupy. Ivan is singled out by Commander Recht, the German officer in charge, for his musical abilities with the concertina.
While Ivan serenades the Recht and other German officers and helps out in the underground Russian resistance (the Partisans), he meets the Commander’s German shepherd puppies with whom he immediately falls in love. Determined to keep the two puppies from being trained to hunt down Russians, he makes a daring plan to help himself, the dogs, and the Partisans.
I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would.
The characters are a little one-dimensional. Ivan and the Partisans are good and Commander Recht is evil. It’s a little too pat. Shades of gray only really sneak in with a couple of the German underlings, but then they only play small rolls in the story.
Ivan loves two things (other than his mother): animals and music. One gets him introduced to the German commander, the other drives his destiny.
Commander Recht is a cruel man who has no problem whipping his men and torturing Russians for information, so it’s no surprise that the Partisans do anything they can to stymie him. But it’s this cruel drive that keeps him on Ivan’s heels.
My favorite characters might be Zasha and Thor. Their sweet dog personalities and playfulness were perfectly captured.
The story seemed at once to drag on one hand and then be short on details and rushed on the other, if that makes sense. It’s as if the plot covered too much both geographically and time-wise, and as a result it was stretched thin with too little action and too much summary. The 330 pages cover four years, including those first awful months of starvation in Leningrad and a daring escape over the Ice Road. Then there was a week or so actively working with the Partisans and more than three years hiding north. The latter covered the most time and had the least written.
It makes sense that that the most action in the story occurs between Leningrad and the north and took the most time page-wise. It doesn’t make sense that the title of the book doesn’t even come into play until the last dozen pages of the book and then only in a condensed way. At most, those pages paved a way for the sequel, but they shouldn’t have had prominence in the title.
After finding out that Finding Zasha was a prequel to Saving Zasha, it almost makes sense that the story was rushed the way it was. Not that I find it even remotely okay.
The writing was good. Some of the scenarios were unbelievable—too much trust toward strangers in the middle of the war (everybody would have been too wary)—but the writing conveyed the human courage that did exist during the worst of times.
This book didn’t feel real when most of the World War II historical fiction novels I’ve read have felt very real. It was too rushed, too contrived. If you have only time for one, then stick with Saving Zasha and skim this one.