01 June, 2021

[Review] The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Cover image from the goodreads website.

Series or Stand Alone: Stand Alone
Release Date: 10 March, 2020
Publisher: Puffin Books
Genre: Juvenile Fiction/Friendship
ISBN: 9781984837370
Edition: Paperback (Also available in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook)
Review Written: 22 March, 2021
Warnings: Bullying, Child abuse, Death, Emotional abuse, Torture, Violence, Domestic abuse, Racism, Xenophobia, Antisemitism, Animal death mentioned
Like Ruta Sepetys for middle grade, Anne Blankman pens a poignant and timeless story of friendship that twines together moments in underexplored history.

On a spring morning, neighbors Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko wake up to an angry red sky. A reactor at the nuclear power plant where their fathers work--Chernobyl--has exploded. Before they know it, the two girls, who've always been enemies, find themselves on a train bound for Leningrad to stay with Valentina's estranged grandmother, Rita Grigorievna. In their new lives in Leningrad, they begin to learn what it means to trust another person. Oksana must face the lies her parents told her all her life. Valentina must keep her grandmother's secret, one that could put all their lives in danger. And both of them discover something they've wished for: a best friend. But how far would you go to save your best friend's life? Would you risk your own?

Told in alternating perspectives among three girls--Valentina and Oksana in 1986 and Rifka in 1941--this story shows that hatred, intolerance, and oppression are no match for the power of true friendship.

See more by Anne Blankman at her website.I'll have to say I was mildly disappointed in this book despite knowing they'd have to go to Leningrad. The first third of the book describes in detail that faithful day where reactor #4 at Chernobyl exploded and released radiation into atmosphere. The rest of the book follows along with 2 girls who learn the world isn't always what it seems.

Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko are classmates and rivals in school, they're also neighbors. Unfortunately, because Valentina is of Jewish descent, she is mostly ostracized within their community of Pripyat. The pair wake up to a red sky and neither of their father's being home. Their day continues on as normal, attending their half day of school, and trying not to worry about the safety of their fathers. As the day progresses however, it becomes clear that not all is well at the powerplant where their fathers are working.

The first scenes of the book pays homage to the Chernobyl disaster and how the USSR attempted to downplay the meltdown. Many people were removed from Pripyat with the thought that it would just be for a few days before returning. The scene that crushed me was the teacher being forced to leave behind her cat. I know logically that it happened, but it completely crushed me inside to see that innocent animal being abandoned on the streets.

The rest of the book focuses around Valentina and Oksana learning that perhaps the other isn't as bad as initially thought. Intermixed throughout the book are flashback scenes (though you don't realize this until later in the book). It is revealed that Oksana's father was very abusive towards her and her mother has internalized that as Oksana being responsible. Throughout the book, Oksana and Valentina both grow close to Valentina's grandmother and they find a better rhythm. Oksana is eventually reunited with her mother, but quickly realizes that her mother has already found a new man who is just as violent. Worse yet, her mother who had never been violent before begins to beat her on the advice of her new beau.

The ending of the book is full of hope as Oksana escapes to live with friends of Valentina's Grandmother under a false identity. We aren't shown whether the girls ever reunite or if their friendship continues, though it is implied. All in all, this book is a feel good story if you can get past the initial heartbreak and trauma of the beginning of the book.

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