It’s the first month of the year and I’m trying to get a head-start on my Goodreads Reading Challenge. I don’t know if anyone else feels like this, but my brain gets tired from reading too many new books. From time to time, my mind yearns to relax in the comforting embrace of an old, well-worn paper-back that’s sat on my shelf for decades. My re-read of choice this week was Eva Ibbotson’s wonderful children’s book The Star of Kazan. Set in pre-WWI Austria, the novel follows Annika, a foundling child whose idyllic life in Vienna is turned upside down by the appearance of her long-lost mother. Full of humor, adventure, and plenty of heart, the novel is a touching coming-of-age story and an entertaining adventure.
Synopsis: Found abandoned as a baby in a lonely alpine church, Annika grows up as the adopted daughter of Ellie and Sigrid, who work as a cook and housekeeper for an eccentric family of professors. Cheerful and hardworking, Annika adores her life in pre-war Vienna, spending her days playing with her friends, helping the professors, and learning to cook. Her life is turned upside down by the sudden arrival of Edeltraut von Tannenberg, a beautiful aristocrat claiming to be Annika’s long-lost mother. Whisked away to Spittal, the family estate in Northern Germany, Annika tries her best to fit in with her new family, but things are not as they seem in Norrland, and Annika soon learns that her mother is hiding a terrible secret.
My thoughts: The Star of Kazan is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl, but it’s foremost a love letter to a lost city. Set in 1908, only 6 years before the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the first World War, Ibbotson describes Vienna as “the golden city,” a place imbued with a rich culture of music and food.
Ibbotson paints a dazzling portrait of Vienna. The reader can hear the waltzes streaming from the houses, smell the patisserie cooling in the windows, and see the beautiful ornamental parks and squares that she describes with loving detail. She writes sentimentally about the emperor, whom she describes as a “lonely man [whose] wife had been assassinated by an anarchist and whose son had shot himself…but [still] worked hard, getting up at five o’clock every morning to read state papers,” and with pride about the city’s famed Lippizaner horses, who were “fed from marble troughs and spent four years learning to perform to music the movements that once been so important in war.”
In Ibbotson’s Vienna there is no past and certainly no future, and it acts as the perfect idyll in which to set Annika’s coming-of-age story. When we first meet Annika, she is introduced to the reader as “the best trained child in Vienna.”
She is the type of protagonist who you no longer see in children or young adult literature: a child who is hard-working, independent, and responsible. Her determination is exemplified in a wonderful scene in which Annika learns to cook the traditional Christmas Carp, a mammoth marathon of cooking that involves washing a carp “at least four times” and assembling a sauce with one-and-a-half pages of ingredients. But Annika is a dreamer, too, and despite her happy upbringing with her adopted family, she often fantasizes about the arrival of her biological mother, whom she imagines is beautiful, well-dressed, and always accompanied by a puppy.
The conflict between fantasy and reality is one of the overarching themes of The Star of Kazan, as Annika soon learns that even the most sought-after dreams can come with unintended consequences. For Annika, it is the realization that finding her new mother means leaving her beloved home behind. Torn between the love she feels for her adopted mothers, and the expectations she’s laid at the feet of her biological mother, Annika struggles to adapt to her new life at Spittal. She is tormented by homesickness, boredom, and the unexpected sadness of having to give up cooking and cleaning so as to not embarrass her aristocratic mother. By sacrificing her personality to satisfy her mother’s whims, Annika loses part of herself.
At Spittal, Annika is confronted by a very different picture of aristocracy than what she expected. The estate is falling apart, the servants are gone, and there is so little food that Annika wonders if Norrland has been struck by famine. Annika chooses to believe that these are signs of her new family’s nobility and austerity, rather than signs of something more amiss in the von Tannenberg household. Annika’s family, too, is not what she expected: her brother Hermann is callous and superficial; her aunt and uncle are snobs, and her mother is obsessed with maintaining the family’s status. The only solace Annika can find is in the company of Zed, the Hungarian groom who looks after Hermann’s horse, but tensions between Zed and Annika’s mother run high. Consequently, Annika finds it difficult to reconcile her idealized view of the aristocracy with the reality of her cold and elitist new family.
Another overarching theme in The Star of Kazan is about class politics, specifically concerning Annika, a servant girl, ascending to the aristocracy class. The servant class consisting of Annika, her adopted family, and her friends, are all portrayed in a positive light. They are hard-working, frugal, kind, and generous. The upper class, consisting of the Eggharts, Annika’s snobby neighbors, and the von Tannenbergs, are portrayed as cheap, greedy, duplicitous, and self-serving. For example, we see Loremarie Egghart, Annika’s wealthier classmate, paying Annika pocket money to read to her great-aunt, because Loremarie is too disgusted to do it herself. Annika’s kindhearted decision to befriend the old lady results in good fortune for her later in the novel, just as the other servants’ kindness and generosity become Annika’s saving grace at the novel’s climax. On the other hand, the upperclass characters’ centering of wealth and status prevents them from finding happiness in anything but material goods. Because the novel is a book for primarily young readers, Ibbotson’s perspective on class divisions is pretty black and white, but it’s still a fascinating viewpoint from an author who came of age during the fall of the European aristocracy.
Although these themes are laced throughout the novel, the plot itself is mostly lighthearted and full of dynamically-written characters. Ibbotson has a magical ability to bring characters to life through slice-of-life vignettes. Some of the novel’s best scenes take place in the kitchen watching Ellie teach Annika to cook, or in the stable, where Zed shows Annika how to properly curry a horse. The novel revolves around finding joy in hard, honest work and the company of loved ones. For readers who prefer adventure over domestic scenes, there is plenty of that too, as Annika and her adopted family play detective in an effort to discover the secret surrounding Annika’s long lost mother. At around 400 pages, the novel is perfectly paced, with a good balance of rousing adventure and slower character building scenes.
Final consensus: The Star of Kazan is a novel that will please readers of any age. From the splendid setting, to the compelling characters, to the intriguing mystery, the book works on every level. Reading The Star of Kazan is like reading a children’s book in the vein of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe or Danny, Champion of the World. Readers who enjoy this more vintage style of storytelling will find the novel comforting and easy to read. It’s just right for a snowy afternoon with a mug of hot chocolate and a warm blanket.