Angel on the Square – Gloria Whelan

Bright colours muted with gold - lovely!

Gloria Whelan seems to be a prolific writer – “her” section in the library is stuffed with cute little hardcovers with nice pictures and clever titles, such as Small Acts of Amazing Courage.  The flyleaf of Angel on the Square states that Ms. Whelan lives “in the woods of northern Michigan,” and that she is a poet.  Other than the complete and utter drag of commuting (which I hate, but which Ms. Whelan likely doesn’t have to do) and mosquitoes (which drink my blood with vigour and leave welts), doesn’t it sound romantic?

Ms. Whelan has, apparently, told the National Book Award committee, “Books saved my life…I think they save the lives of lots of children.”  They saved my life when I was a kid, sitting alone and un-friended in the bully-filled schoolyard.  They seem to be saving the life of my one-year-old, who goes to daycare, cries for his parents, and then sits forlornly in the corner going through books until we pick him up.  So, not only is Ms. Whelan a wood-dwelling poetess, but potentially a kindred spirit!  I was really excited to read a few of her books and find a new author to love.

Angel on the Square is a story told by Katya, who is about twelve years old when the book begins.  Within the first chapter, we are introduced to her cousin Misha – a student with a revolutionary bent – and her mother – a noblewoman who has been invited to be the Empress Alexandra’s lady-in-waiting.  Soon afterwards, Katya and her mother move into the palace with the Tsar Nicholas II and his family.  Katya, who has been raised in the lap of luxury by her mother, is surprised to learn that the Romanov daughters live a simpler life.  She learns to be a friend and pseudo-sister to the Princesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and the Anastasia, while at the same time we learn about the war and the Russian Revolution as it might have been seen through the eyes of a young girl watching the Imperial family.  Side characters include the notorious Rasputin, the young Prince Alexei, and the revolutionaries (represented by Misha).

By the end of the (288-page) book, the Russian Revolution is over, Lenin is in power, and (SPOILER, but only if you don’t know anything about the Romanovs) the Imperial family is removed from power and executed (yes, even Anastasia).

Angel on the Square is historical fiction!  With a beautiful cover!  Written by an award-winning wood-dwelling poetess who may just be a kindred spirit!

I really wanted to love this book.

So far, I’ve read it 1.5 times (the 0.5 was just for the purposes of this review) and I only kind of like it.  Maybe it’s because it’s written in “I”.  But I think it’s because Katya doesn’t seem to have much of a personality.  She is kind, loyal, and good at describing what is going on around her: the riches, the downfall, the sordidness, the fear of those around her.  But her own opinions, feelings and thoughts are surprisingly bland.   Even at her most dramatic moment (Katya: “I felt as if I had disappeared from the face of the earth.  I began to cry.”), I felt nearly no empathy (Polly: “Yes, and what happened next?”)…and I’m the kind of person who is usually gripped by stories.

It feels like Katya’s main function (and it is a function) is to convey what is happening in the country and within the Imperial family, kind of like a fly on the wall or a cat in the corner.  And she does this well – after reading, I found myself trolling Wiki to learn more about the Romanovs.  So one could argue that Katya’s has done her job.  But I feel that if Katya was more interesting, I would be looking for sequels, not reading up on Russian dynasties.

The history comes alive, but the character falls flat.  I learned something about Russia, but came away with no interest in Katya.  Sorely disappointing, but as it is such a quick read, I am going to try Ms. Whelan again with another book.

Reading Ages: An eager reading 10 to a reluctant reading 14.  I don’t think it’s interesting enough for 14, but I could be wrong.

Interesting Additional Item: The book has a glossary of Russian words!  Another detail that makes it informative.  I now know that kasha is buckwheat groat porridge, and not an overpriced breakfast cereal (I guess, that is Kashi).

Rating: B-.

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