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The Star of Kazan

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Heartwarming story of one girl's steadfastness in the face of deception and hardships, and the lengths her friends go to to help her.

Cover of The Star of Kazan

Author: Eva Ibbotson

Publisher: Macmillan

Published in: 2004

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Late 19th C

Setting: Vienna

Genres:  FriendshipHistorical


Characters:

  • Annika is a 12-year-old foundling, brought up by the Sigrid and Ellie, the cook and housekeeper of a house belonging to three professors. She is happy there, and kind and thoughtful, but longs for her real mother to come along.
  • Frau Edeltraut von Tannenberg is the impoverished heir to the Spittal estate, which she wishes her son Hermann to take on once he has gone through the military academy.
  • Zed is a half-gypsy who helps look after the animals and the estate at Spittal.
  • Professor Julius, Professor Emil and Professor Gertrude are the brothers and sister who own the house Annika grows up in. In spite of their tendency to try to educate her whenever possible, they care for her very much, and do their best to rescue her when she gets into trouble.

Synopsis:

Annika, found by Sigrid and Ellie on a walking trip, is brought up by them in the house of the Professors, until Frau Edeltraut comes along and reveals that she is Annika's mother. Annika leaves her Vienna friends and her life behind and travels to the Edeltraut estate, Spittal, where she discovers that the family is impoverished but that her arrival is expected to bring good fortune with it.

Notes:

Eva Ibbotson's usual style brings with it quirky but charming characters, a simple and happy heroine and her friends, and mildly comical wrongdoers who ultimately receive their just deserts. There is a comic-book simplicity to the story, but thanks to her technique of letting us see inside the decisions which characters make, the author brings some life to all but the most incidental of roles.

I have never been to Vienna, but the author's clear love for it — at least for its life and soul at the turn of the last century — is enough to make you want to experience it first-hand. In a scene towards the end of the book, which was surely conceived with the cinema screen in mind, Annika goes up in the Giant Wheel and showers the city with flowers she has bought. And the people below, knowing nothing other than it is raining flowers, accept the situation happily, because “This, after all, was Vienna”.

Annika's character manages to be charmingly virtuous without losing its realism. Brought up simply in the kitchen of a well-to-do house, the girl is happy and helpful and expects no more of life than to be allowed to cook the Christmas Carp. Who can blame her for dreaming of a romantic moment when her mother arrives? And who can fault her when she sticks loyally to that woman as the charade grows thinner and thinner?

There is only one episode I wish were handled just a little differently. Trying not to give too much away, Annika's Vienna friends come to take her away from a school she's been sent to. During this rescue attempt, someone deliberately lets a large and heavy object fall down a flight of stairs onto the headmistress. In the ensuing chaos, everyone gets away. On the one hand, there's real heroism involved, as someone shows how they were prepared to put Annika's health and safety before an object, however beloved. On the other hand, though, the headmistress could very easily have been killed, and this without the rescuers really knowing how bad a situation Annika was in. We, the readers, know. They, the characters, don't. If something comparable but less potentially lethal had been done, with some sort of restitution later the episode could have worked just as well. This might appear to be nitpicking, but I don't see why the Good characters should need to get away with murder.

In summary, though, the book is uplifting in many areas, but without becoming cloying or too unrealistic.

Themes:

  • Family ties and loyalty
  • Delight in simple things

Then the first letters came from Spittal. Pauline and Stefan carried theirs to the hut so as to compare notes and both agreed that Annika's letters were strange.

It had been difficult to stop Annika from talking when she was excited about something, but she wrote about her new life in a careful sort of way, rather as if she was writing an essay for school.

What she made clear to both of them was that she was very happy. In Pauline's letter she had underlined the word 'very' and in Stefan's letter she said she was very happy indeed. She wrote about her marvellous and amazing mother, who looked after Spittal all by herself, and she wrote about Hermann, who was gonig into the army and did press-ups and bayonet practice in his room. She wrote about how big Spittal was and how brave the aristcracy were, not minding about being cold and never having pudding and she described the bear pit in the hunting lodge into which a drunken labourer had fallen.

After that came the questions. These flowed on in quite a different way, as though she had written them quickly without thinking. Had the baby's teeth come through? What was Pauline reading? How were the goldfish in the fountain? Had Loremarie got a new governess?

“Do you think she's all right?” asked Stefan.

“Of course she's all right,” said Pauline, sounding cross. “Why shouldn't she be?”

Saturday 20th August 2005