Exceptional books have the ability to not only show you what the characters see, but also make you feel what they feel and think how they think. These books go beyond making you step into the shoes of characters, by making you walk in their shoes. The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman is that kind of exceptional book.
This book explores an historical event of which I was unaware in a setting I knew almost nothing about — the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. The first couple of pages of the book were intriguing and drew me in. Blankman goes on to paint a picture of the earliest hours after the nuclear explosion — the crimson glow in the sky, the “unearthly blue” smoke, the metallic smell in the air, all set to the backdrop of fear of the government.
The story is set in 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine, and tells the interconnected stories of three characters — Valentina, her grandmother Rifka, and Oksana. Valentina is a Jewish girl who lives with her parents in the former Soviet Union. During those times, people were prejudiced towards Jews. Valentina was bullied and teased by girls like Oksana, the second character, who has been taught that Jews are thieves and fools. Both girls’ parents’ work in the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Then something strange, unexpected, and devastating happens. The nuclear power plant explodes causing radiation to spread throughout the city. Together, Valentina and Oksana escape to Leningrad, Russia to live with Rifka, Valentina’s grandmother, who is the third major character in the book.
Valentina had never really known her grandmother until she came to live with her. Rifka shares her experiences about life during the Holocaust with the girls and they learn how she had to leave her home and family to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. These women stand together and experience pain, fear, and persistence as friends, as the “Blackbird Girls.”
The friendship between Valentina and Oksana and overcoming hardship are certainly central themes in the book. For me, however, this book is about the truth. In The Blackbird Girls, the Soviet government hides the truth of the nuclear disaster and dangers of nuclear power. The girls have learned that nuclear power is the safest, cleanest source of energy and an accident at the power station was a “statistical impossibility.” The government did not tell citizens that there is radiation in the air and they went about their lives as if it was a normal day. When people got worried about the radiation, they were told by the government that their motherland will protect them. Finally, when people found out about the disaster and the whole city had to be evacuated, the Soviets lied to the world that a disaster even occurred. Later, citizens were misinformed that radiation can be cured by cucumbers and milk.
Even though the story is set in the 1980s in a country with a non-democratic government, there are uncanny similarities to the US. Like Russians, Americans have heard lies like these from our government for the past four years and beyond. So many people in America continue to be misinformed about our elections and vaccines. Like Oksana, so many people are prejudiced against people who look different from them, speak a different language, or practice a different religion because of lies they are taught to believe. Lies are dangerous. They can shape people’s perspectives and determine their behavior. This story taught me how important it is for the government to be truthful. It speaks to some of the biggest challenges of our times.
Blankman expresses the agony of the characters in an unforgettable way. The death of many loved ones and the pain of the three characters makes the book depressing. Even though I wish the book would be more hopeful, experiencing the suffering of the characters through Blackman’s beautiful writing is what makes this book so impactful. I learned that sharing the experience of suffering and grief might make us move past prejudice and bigotry. But what I really loved and appreciated is how this book speaks to our culture and the moment we are living through right now. It’s a piece of historical fiction that has many parallels to contemporary times. I give it my strongest endorsement.
The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman. Viking Books for Young Readers, 2020. Buy the book here and support Stone Soup in the process!