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ANGEL ON THE SQUARE

By Gloria Whelan
New York: Scholastic Inc., 2001
ISBN: 0-439-43789-X
288 pages

Bob Corbett
August 2015

This novel is set in Russia beginning in 1913. The narrator is young Katya who is only 12. She lives with her mother who is a very wealthy woman and a good friend of Empress Alexandra and Emperor Nikolas. Katya’s father died in a recent war. One of Katya’s mother’s close friend’s husband also died in the war, and his wife died of grief shortly after. Katya’s mother took in their son, Misha who is 16.

While this novel seems to be aimed at the younger readers author Gloria Whelan is not out to create a lovely fairytale, but to challenge any who walk around in their world, like Pippa in Robert Browning’s ironic poem, seeing only the good while misery abounds around them. In Browning’s poem Pippa walks the streets and sees, but misses, at the same time, all manner of misery and suffering, but writes all she sees as: The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearled; The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His heaven— All’s right with the world!

When the novel opens Katya is about as naďve as Pippa is in the passage of Robert Browning’s poem above.

But in Gloria Whelan’s novel young Katya doesn’t remain as ignorant or myopic as Pippa. Rather, because of Misha’s radicalism, the old Baron Nogin on her mother’s estate, a woman protester she meets in the street, and even the behavior of the self-centered young Anastasia in the royal palace, all begin to shake Katya’s faith in the goodness of the status quo and she begins, haltingly, to wonder if, indeed, all is well in the world.

In the novel the empress wants Katya’s mother to move in with them as a lady in waiting. This is not a paid position as in a maid or such, but an honor bestowed on some wealthy people who are actual friends and/or relatives of the monarchs.

The structure of having the young girl narrate the story is quite effective since, at the beginning, she knows virtually nothing of the political and social world around her and thus, in her very naďve learning and telling of her introduction to the “real” world she is able to instruct the reader who isn’t familiar with many of the details of the world of Russia in the period leading up to the revolution.

Rasputin is being championed by Empress Alexandra and barely tolerated by her husband, the Emperor.

Misha, the good looking curly blond 16 year old, has become a critic of the tzar, but is still quite nervous of completely joining the proletariat and their struggle. He, too, was raised in an aristocratic family before his father died in war and his mother of the sorrow at her husband’s death.

The Empress asks Katya and her mother to move into their home (or rather homes) and help her with her own children, Olga, 18, Tatiana, 16, Maria 14 and Anastasia, 11 (called Stasha), and the very sickly Alexei who is 9 as the novel opens.

Misha reveals to young Katya his distaste for the structure of Russia and the power of the tzar and nobles. He is forbidden to talk about such matters by Katya’s mother, but he does seem to enjoy trying to shock and enlighten Katya. Finally, in a sort of exasperation, he takes the young Katya with him to see some children of her own age, and even younger, working in one of the factories. She is simply shocked and in her very decent young naďve manner she recognizes this is horrible and is sure the tzar, who treats her, her family and his own family, so lovingly, can know nothing about it! Her education under Misha has begun.

Soon after they move to the tsar’s Winter Palace Misha has a second chance to “teach” Katya and again takes her out, this time to where there is to be a demonstration. During this event the Cossacks arrive, break up the demonstration and run off all the protesters. Katya is extremely shocked by what she’s seen and is confident that the tzar doesn’t know about all this since, on her view, he is such a wonderful man.

Yet she has seen some things with her own eyes and begins to realize perhaps something is going on she doesn’t quite understand.

Soon the Romanoffs go off on trip and Katya and her mother go to the country to visit her mother’s estate, which provides all her considerable wealth. There, too, Katya begins to see that the “system” she’s grown up with is not quite what she had been taught and had believed.

This time it is the old Baron Nogin who owns a near-by estate and is sort of there under a forced arrest since he, like Misha, is convinced there is an enormous amount of injustice within the empire. He sees in Katya as a decent young woman and he tries to reach her to not take the view of her mother, that all is well within this system, and he is especially concerned with the brutality with which Katya’s mother’s overseer runs her estate and is even running off a young man to the military simply because he wants to marry one of the servant girls and the overseer doesn’t agree with this union.

With the Romanoff’s she even learns from “Stasha” (Anastasia) who is just a year younger than Katya and to whom Katya has sort of been “given” as a playmate and companion, that her father, the tzar, would never be cruel or unfair to the people. Yet Katya is seeing with her own eyes how simply mistaken her friend and companion, Anastasia, is.

Alexei, the tzar’s only son and youngest child, is always sickly and has hemophilia. He bleeds very easily and excessively at any mild accident. Alexei’s mother, the tsarina, is convinced that Rasputin helps Alexei’s health all the time. No one else is so convinced.

On Katya’s 14th birthday Germany declared war on Russia. As war broke out she worried very much about women and children and very especially about Misha. He is active in an anti-tzar movement, but he doesn’t like Lenin at all, but admires Kerensky.

The Tsar takes his young son, Alexei, with him to the war. As heir to the throne he had to be seen, but his wife was and Alexei’s sisters are devastated. After some weeks the Empress simply has to see Alexei. She, her daughters, Katya and her mother all went to the front, mainly so the empress could see her son!. At this time Katya is just 15. The scene on the train was just astonishing. The train was filled with troops who barely had anything to eat yet the Empress and family continued on with fancy formal dinners!!!!

The Empress is German, and now suspected by masses to be as a spy and Rasputin is hated. Eventually Rasputin is murdered by some of the aristocracy because he was destroying the country.

Kerensky was quite decent to the royal family and feared Lenin who owed a lot to Germany. But as the war comes to a close Lenin is becoming more powerful than Kerensky. Eventually he does take over and the royal family is taken and sent to Toblolsk in Siberia.

After Lenin defeats Kerensky the young Misha manages to get Katya and her mother information about them in Siberia. He knows their danger. He sees where things are going even warns Katya: “I was never a friend of the Tsar’s, but a hundred tzars would be better than one Lenin.”

Eventually the Romanovs are taken away and Katya and her mother plan to retire to their farm estate, The Oaks. However, they discover their estate burned, but a peasant soldier and woman that Katya had helped, save them.

These peasants take them in and help them learn some farming and how to survive. Katya fixes up an old shed as a cottage and they move in. Their physical situation was one of very poor peasants, but to her mother and to Nina, their former peasant servant, were much like the old days.

“. . . Mama and Nina seemed always to be living in the past. In Nina’s eyes Mama was still the Countess Baronova. In Mama’s eyes Nina was still a faithful servant.”

Misha finally comes looking for them and Katya returns with him to join the struggle for a new Russia, not under control of the Leninists.

The novel is very believable despite the connections to the inner circle of the Romanovs. Further, the tactic of hearing the story from the perspective of this once naďve child, and then young woman growing more sophisticated in her understanding, is quite successful. I would recommend this novel to any who want to read a sort of “inside” story of the revolution from the perspective of one of the noble class finally learning about the reality of the world around them.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu