By – January 13, 2021

Anne Blankman’s The Black­bird Girls is an ambi­tious project, a nov­el which weaves togeth­er two dis­as­ters in Sovi­et his­to­ry. The nov­el begins in 1986, when Jew­ish fifth-grade stu­dent Valenti­na Kaplan learns that her father has been injured on the job. He works at the V.I. Lenin Pow­er Sta­tion, oth­er­wise known as Cher­nobyl. Fam­i­lies of Cher­nobyl work­ers had been lulled into a false sense of secu­ri­ty; they had been giv­en reas­sur­ances that the facil­i­ty was safe, and that sim­ple reme­dies could cure any ill effects in the unlike­ly case of an acci­dent. Valenti­na learns that her life has been full of untruths, and that she and her moth­er will be forced to flee and nav­i­gate the labyrinths of a total­i­tar­i­an state in order to survive.

As the sto­ry pro­gress­es, flash­back chap­ters uncov­er the sto­ry of Rif­ka, a Jew­ish girl liv­ing in Kiev in 1941. Like Valenti­na, Rif­ka con­fronts the ingrained anti­semitism of her fel­low Ukraini­ans, who turn against their Jew­ish neigh­bors when the Nazis invade their coun­try. As the plot unfolds, Valenti­na and Rif­ka become linked, and echoes of the past can be heard in the present.

Valenti­na and her moth­er meet anoth­er des­per­ate Cher­nobyl fam­i­ly when Valentina’s school­mate, Oksana, learns that her father has also been a vic­tim of the acci­dent. Oksana has repeat­ed­ly taunt­ed Valenti­na with the unthink­ing prej­u­dice against Jews which she has wit­nessed from her father. Oksana’s hatred seems unre­mark­able to the Kaplans; Valentina’s moth­er reminds her with bit­ter res­ig­na­tion, that We’re Jews…Others are look­ing for a rea­son to hate us. Don’t give them any.” When their mutu­al suf­fer­ing unites the two moth­ers and their daugh­ters, Oksana is forced to exam­ine the assump­tions which had defined her life; addi­tion­al­ly, a hid­den his­to­ry of child abuse has ter­ror­ized her and warped her self-image. Both girls find tem­po­rary shel­ter in Leningrad with Valentina’s grand­moth­er, Rita, and the new cos­mopoli­tan set­ting and the warmth of a Jew­ish matri­arch become an emo­tion­al sup­port for Oksana.

The nar­ra­tive is com­plex, with sev­er­al inter­weav­ing sub­plots in the present in addi­tion to Rifka’s dilem­ma in the past. Both Rif­ka and Oksana find refuge and uncon­di­tion­al sup­port where they would least have expect­ed to find them. Rita helps cul­ti­vate Oksana’s grad­ual accep­tance that some­one could love her, in spite of her family’s lega­cy of dysfunction.

The black­birds men­tioned in the title are resilient crea­tures, accord­ing to the folk­lore which Rif­ka learns — a link between heav­en and earth…a sym­bol for eter­ni­ty.” All the women and girls of this female-cen­tered nov­el strug­gle to find sup­port among one anoth­er, and also to build an inner strength which will help them to sur­vive anti­semitism, the lies of a total­i­tar­i­an state, and the cru­el­ty of abu­sive par­ents. Blankman’s char­ac­ters live with­in the worst events of his­to­ry, but ulti­mate­ly take flight. The Black­bird Girls is high­ly recommended.

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.

Discussion Questions

Black­bird Girls by Anne Blankman tells the sto­ry of friend­ship and sur­vival, and how the two are con­nect­ed in one family’s his­to­ry. Valenti­na and Oksana are the most unlike­ly of friends in 1986 Ukraine — a Jew and a non-Jew who has been taught to hate — until a nuclear pow­er erup­tion poi­sons the shared air they breathe and forces both girls to seek home in unfa­mil­iar places. Told through mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tive points of view, this multi­gen­er­a­tional sto­ry shines light on the his­to­ry of Ukrain­ian Jew­ry and the effect of com­mu­nist rule on its pop­u­la­tion. Blankman’s sto­ry is one of self-deter­mi­na­tion sur­pass­ing tox­i­c­i­ty, and the strength of good­ness above all else. Her Jew­ish char­ac­ters are both saved and sav­ior, tak­ing and extend­ing hands; they inspire read­ers to use what­ev­er advan­tages they may have to make the world bet­ter for oth­ers. Well-researched and beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered, the time­less sto­ry of The Black­bird Girls will be beloved for years to come.