Monday, June 25, 2007

Mystery of the century!

The Kitchen Boy, A Novel of the Last Tsar, by Robert Alexander, offers a fictional answer to one of the twentieth century's most intriguing mysteries, namely, what really happened to Tsar Nikolai II and his family in July 1918.
That the Tsar was forced to abdicate is historical fact. That the Tsar and Tsaritsa, their four daughters and only son were held under house arrest in Ipatiev House in Siberia for almost two years is fact. It is also fact that all seven, plus four family retainers, were shot in a cellar one gruesome morning by Communist soldiers. But speculation as to details surrounding that mass assassination has swirled ever since then.
Many of us recall the women who, from time to time in the last century, have claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasiya, survivor of the Romanov family murders. Ingrid Bergman starred in a movie based on such a premise. Such fancy captures the imagination - - what if?
What if a rescue plan had been launched by loyalists? What if the Russian Imperial family did not all die that cruel morning? Why did a simple execution become an hour long bloodbath? What if some Romanovs managed the improbable and escaped? How could such a thing occur?
Teasing bits of information survived the years and added to the tantalizing speculation: anonymous notes that breathe hope of rescue from unknown quarters, missing jewels which may have been taken by a royal or royal loyalist to finance royal survival, rumors of inconsistencies in the burial site of the family, and - - most enigmatic - - the fact that not all the Romanovs were found when their remains were exhumed.
What became of the missing White Russians? Who was missing? Why? Why was one member of the tiny Romanov retinue whisked away from Ipatiev House just a day before the murders? Could that person have known what really transpired?
Robert Alexander does a competent job in creating the world inside Ipatiev House. Clearly he performed extraordinary research. He writes from the perspective of the kitchen boy who served the family in exile, a boy about the age of the Heir to the throne, Aleksei Nikolaevich. As a domestic servant, Leonka, the kitchen boy, has an inside track on life inside the prison house. He sees the Romanovs not as semi-divine royals, but as a fully human family.

Mr. Alexander adds many authentic touches as he draws the reader a picture of the final two weeks the family lived. Sometimes this makes for tedious reading because of Leonka's position as an observer only, as someone outside the family intimacies, and because the very nature of imprisonment tends to be tedious. To counteract this, Mr. Alexander drops little bits and pieces along the way, then gathers those bits and pieces later to weave both the fictional resolution and the factual incidents.
This book is receiving much praise, and I expect any day to read that the movie rights have been sold. It provided me several hours of diversion during a sleepless night, and would make good vacation reading. If I were to criticize anything, I would say that more colorful details would have made the book even better. Don't just mention late in the book that Ipatiev House is surrounded by two palisades; tell us early on, and tell us how they looked, how they affected air circulation during a stifling summer, how it affected the sounds from outside. Don't just tell us that there was black tea and sour black bread, tell us about the tang and coarseness of the bread, the scorching, strong tannin bite of the tea, the way the fragrance assails the nostrils long before the tea swims past the tongue. I am a reader who loves lush details such as these. They add richness and interest, but they also serve to enhance believability.

Confidential note to Robert Alexander: "seldomly" is not a word.
Because the narrator is an ignorant kitchen boy, his perspective is limited to what is apparent. I suspect The Kitchen Boy will send many readers to their libraries and to the Internet for more information. The Tsar and Tsaritsa are fascinating players on the world history stage. Theirs is a story of Classic Greek tragedy proportions. They engineered their own hard downfall with the very things they did to preserve themselves and their country. Passionately devoted to Russia and to one another, they nevertheless stand accountable for a blood soaked reign.

This book should please mystery-lovers. I can tell you that, despite my best efforts, I did not guess the ending.
For summer entertainment, make yourself some black tea, pour it into a glass (for authenticity, don't use a cup) and pick up Robert Alexander's historical novel.
For further intrigue, you might try to figure out what really happened to the Romanovs. There is, even today, disagreement among the scientists who examined the DNA in the remains as to whether the bones in the grave really are Romanov family members at all. Almost a century later, so many questions remain.
(submitted by Moon Rani)


Staton Rabin said...
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jenclair said...

I've read some positive reviews of The Kitchen Boy and added it to my list, but have not made a serious attempt to get a copy. Now, I will. Thanks!