Anya and the Dragon

  • Review
By – September 9, 2019

Anya Miroslavov­na Kozlov con­fronts sev­er­al moral dilem­mas as a Jew­ish girl liv­ing among Chris­tians in tenth cen­tu­ry Rus­sia. Accord­ing to tra­di­tion, she is respon­si­ble for her actions, as she is soon to turn twelve years old and become a bat mitz­vah; the choic­es she must make weigh heav­i­ly on her young shoul­ders. Some seem straight­for­ward — bak­ing chal­lah is def­i­nite­ly more impor­tant than hunt­ing drag­ons. Some are much more ambigu­ous. Should Anya agree to the killing of a drag­on at the Tsar’s request, or fol­low her grandmother’s reminder that sav­ing a life, accord­ing to the Tal­mud, is the equiv­a­lent of sav­ing the world? Sofiya Pasternack’s new mid­dle-grade fan­ta­sy nov­el com­bines mag­ic and high-stakes adven­ture with med­i­ta­tions on Jew­ish sur­vival inside an alien culture.

Anya and her fam­i­ly live in the vil­lage of Zmerye­ka, far from any of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties which devel­oped out of trade routes in Kievan Rus, the ances­tor of sev­er­al mod­ern East­ern Euro­pean nations. Accord­ing to the log­ic of Anya’s stub­born yet sup­port­ive grand­moth­er, Bab­ulya, Jews are less like­ly tar­gets of per­se­cu­tion in a place where their num­bers are insignif­i­cant. Sab­bath obser­vance is lim­it­ed to their own home and Anya’s bat mitz­vah­will be marked not by her read­ing the Torah to a large group of women, but only with­in their own small fam­i­ly of Anya, Bab­ulya, and Anya’s moth­er — a woman try­ing sto­ical­ly to sup­port her fam­i­ly since her hus­band has been con­script­ed into the Tsar’s army. Read­ers may won­der about the like­li­hood of Anya hav­ing par­tic­i­pat­ed in this rite of pas­sage at all, or may accept that, with­in the para­me­ters of this nov­el, Anya’s study of Jew­ish texts need not con­form to his­to­ry any more than the Tsar’s pur­suit of dan­ger­ous dragons.

Anya’s clos­est friend­ship is with Ivan Vosya” Ivanon­ich, a boy from a fam­i­ly of pro­fes­sion­al jesters who, like Anya, needs to decide his own des­tiny. His nick­name is nec­es­sary to dis­tin­guish him from his broth­ers — all also named Ivan. Anya had pre­vi­ous­ly been iso­lat­ed from oth­er chil­dren because of her iden­ti­ty. As she explains to the drag­on whose fate depends on a com­plex series of events, My Sab­bath is dif­fer­ent from theirs. So I don’t play with them, ever.” Paster­nack sub­tly inte­grates the themes of choice and respon­si­bil­i­ty through­out the nar­ra­tive; even as Anya hurls horse­shoes at a Viking or flees from mon­sters, her moral quest remains at the center.

Pasternack’s chal­lenge lies in bal­anc­ing Jew­ish cus­toms, Russ­ian folk­lore, and fan­tas­tic ele­ments in one nov­el, but also in describ­ing Jews uproot­ed from a Jew­ish world. She pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing back­sto­ry about Anya’s fam­i­ly and how they came to set­tle in Zmerye­ka, and empha­sizes the dif­fi­cul­ties of their dai­ly exis­tence cut off from oth­er Jews. Since the nov­el is not gov­erned by the rules of real­ism, being Jew­ish means that Anya’s father owns two copies of the Tal­mud and her moth­er cooks bliny for Shavuot but also that her family’s imp­ish domovoi, (house spir­it) wears a kip­pah. The response of their neigh­bors to the sole Jews in their midst is large­ly pos­i­tive, per­haps to an unusu­al­ly gen­er­ous degree. There is one cru­el and cor­rupt mag­is­trate, but his prej­u­dices are not shared by the vil­lagers. Even the local priest is improb­a­bly tol­er­ant of his non-Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. If this aspect of Pasternack’s nov­el seems more hope­ful than cred­i­ble, it does not ulti­mate­ly detract from her ambi­tious project. Anya is a new and mem­o­rable Jew­ish char­ac­ter who has forged her way into fan­tas­tic literature.

Anya and the Drag­on is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed, not only for chil­dren but also for adults eager to find high-qual­i­ty fan­ta­sy books with Jew­ish themes.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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