Early on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.
Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.
Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.
This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.
This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.
Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.
Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.
In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.
Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?
Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.
For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.
With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.