________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 5 . . . . October 28, 2005


Four Steps to Death.

John Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2005.
207 pp., pbk. & cl., $8.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55337-705-2 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55337-704-4 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Stalingrad, Battle of, Volgograd, Russia, 1942-1943-Juvenile literature.
Death - Juvenile fiction.
Soldiers - Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Rita Rebizant.

**** /4


Although it is night as Sergei emerges from the cellar that is now home, countless fires make it as bright as day. Above him, the sky is busy with red and green flares, arcing tracer bullets and the fiery paths of rockets. Explosions and the pop of small-arms fire echo in every direction. The air is sickly sweet with the smell of decomposing bodies.

None of this bothers Sergei. It is just a game, bigger and more dangerous than the one he used to play in the courtyard, but still a game. It started with sneaking out, trying to catch glimpses of the Fascist tanks or the soldiers in their odd coal-scuttle helmets; but that has lost its novelty. Now the game is to find food in abandoned buildings or on dead bodies. Tonight he is going to dig for forgotten turnips in Tolstoy's allotment.


Seventy-year old Sergei is a police officer called to work the case of two bodies that have been found in the cellar of a building that is being excavated in the Russian city of Volgograd. The discovery sets in motion a series of flashbacks to when Sergei was a child in Stalingrad, as Volgograd was then known. Four Steps to Death is the story of five individuals during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. 

     Vasily is a young, idealistic sniper-assistant who wants nothing more than to rid his beloved Russia of the Nazi army that is stubbornly moving through his country. Vasily quickly becomes attached to the most famous Russian sniper, a woman named Yelena Pavlova. He has pledged to defend his homeland to the death, but he is confused by the lack of patriotism that seems to infect the other men and even Yelena. During a march, the troops began to sing "Zemlyanka," a song that was considered unpatriotic, but every time they sing "You are now very far away/Expanses of snow lie between us/It is so hard for me to come to you,/And here there are four steps to death," Vasily thinks of home.

     Conrad, a German tank leader commanding his unit in Stalingrad, believes all the while that his mission will be successful and the "Ivans" (Russians) will be defeated. Conrad has some comfort going into battle with his older brother, Josef, who gave him their father's Iron Cross from World War I as a good luck charm.

     In the middle is eight-year-old Sergei. He lives in Stalingrad in the cellar of the building in which he lived while the Germans and Russians wage war on one another. Thousands of bodies litter the streets, and Sergei becomes a scavenger who dreams of being a sniper so that he, too, can kill the "Fascists."

     With the use of maps following the movements of the central characters at the beginning of every chapter, and using the narrative voices of Sergei, Vasily and Conrad, Wilson has done an amazing job in recreating this bloody and fierce battle. Because Wilson uses wonderfully descriptive language that puts the reader in the midst of the fighting, no one will leave this book without having a deeper understanding of the Battle of Stalingrad and being affected by the ravages that is war.

Highly Recommended.

Rita Rebizant is an Educational Assistant in Hanover School Division and a teacher candidate in the B.Ed. program at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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