________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 19 . . . . May 23, 2003


The Impossible Journey.

Gloria Whelan.
New York, NY: HarperCollins (Distributed in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Canada), 2003.
248 pp., cloth, $23.99.
ISBN 0-06-623811-0.

Subject Headings:
Political prisoners-Fiction.
Siberia (Russia)-History-20th century-Fiction.
Soviet Union-History-1925-1953-Fiction.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Lorraine Douglas.

***1/2 /4


I resolved to die of hunger and cold before I lived with such a vulture. I grabbed my coat and went flying down the stairway. Mrs. Zotov called after me, and Georgi cried for me to come back. All I could think of was finding Mama and Papa. Suddenly I knew what I must do. I called up the hallway, “I’m going to NKVD headquarters.”

National Book Award winner Gloria Whelan once again tells a spellbinding story in this companion volume to Angel on the Square (HarperCollins, 2001). In the first book set in Russia’s turbulent past, Katya Ivanova lives a very comfortable life in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1914. Her mother is lady-in-waiting to the Romanovs, and Katya plays with the little princesses inside the royal walls. Outside the walls, her friend Misha, who has a different perspective on the desperate social conditions, tries to persuade Katya to take a closer look at the inequities in Russian society. The novel deftly relates the exile of the Romanovs, and Katya and her mother become outcasts in post revolutionary Russian. Even though Misha and Katya live through the great turmoil of the First World War and the revolution, they are able to return to St. Petersburg in 1918 and once again look upon their talisman of good fortune – the statue of the angel in the square in St. Petersburg.

     The Impossible Journey is set in 1934 in Stalinist Russia and centres on the two children of Katya and Misha. Thirteen-year-old Marya and her brother Georgi, who is six years younger, are living in a dangerous totalitarian world. Their parents have been outspoken critics of the regime and, upon the assassination of Kirov, are taken away. Katya is exiled to a small town in Siberia, and Misha is sentenced to work in brutal conditions in a coal mine. The children move in with their neighbours in the apartment building, the Zotovs, who exploit the children and take the family’s possessions. Upon receiving a letter from her mother, Marya is determined that she and her brother find her. One night, just before they are going to be sent to an orphanage, the children steal away to the train station to begin their journey to the Yenisey River in Siberia. In the station they are lucky enough to meet kindly Dr. Glebov and his family. He is being forced to be the medical doctor at a coal mine, and his family helps the children in the initial part of the journey. Later, the two children are not as fortunate as they meet up with Old Savoff who tries to enslave them, and they face ferocious dogs and dangerous wildlife. The most exciting segment of the journey is when they meet the Samoyeds and the children travel the last leg to the town of Dudinka riding the Samoyed reindeer!

     Gloria Whelan tells an incredible tale of survival which is similar in theme to Deborah Ellis’s Parvana’s Journey (Groundwood, 2002). Both books feature strong female protagonists searching for their mother against the backdrop of a violent world, and both reaffirm hope against all odds through the altruism of courageous characters. The Impossible Journey is written with strong lyrical imagery, and Whelan is excellent at describing the natural world surrounding the children. As in Homeless Bird (HarperCollins, 2000), Whelan’s National Book Award winner, she once again uses images of birds to express ideas of personal freedom and the ability of the human spirit to soar above the realities of living in an authoritarian family or political system. The book, like Homeless Bird and Angel on the Square, is beautifully packaged with an elegant cover, attractive typography and page design, and it fits the hands so comfortably with its wonderful size.

     The Impossible Journey is highly recommended, but, at times, the story strains credibility with the amazing coincidence that the doctor the children meet on the train is the same man who helps their father. Also the ability of the children to even make the journey in such a watchful police state seems incredible. But these are minor points as Whelan tells an exceptional and very highly readable historical adventure. Readers who admire works like Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe: Growing up in Siberia (Crowell, 1968) or Ellis’s Parvana’s Journey will find this new novel of great interest.

Highly Recommended.

Lorraine Douglas is the Administrative Coordinator of Youth Services at the Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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