REVIEW: Vasilisa by Julie Mathison
It’s 1919, but in Edenfall, Pennsylvania, the Great War is not over — not for Vasilisa, at least. Papa is presumed dead, Mama is being courted by an absolute ogre, and now Babka, her beloved grandma, has had a bad spell. Or has she fallen under one? Only the Old Tales, the Russian fables Vasilisa was raised on, offer any comfort or counsel.
But what if they are more than child’s tales?
Enter Ivan, who jumps a train at midnight and finds Vasilisa in a fix. Old Rus is calling from across time and both worlds, and if they heed the call, they might both get what they want. But it won’t be easy. Three witches, two children, one ogre – they’re outnumbered and outclassed. Vasilisa has a secret weapon, in the humblest of guises, but will the meek truly inherit the earth? Or will the mighty prevail? One thing is certain: it’s a fairy tale of their own making, a tale whose happy ending is ever in doubt.
Dear Ms. Mathison,
I know a (very) little about Russian folklore but what I do know made me want to find out more about this book. How was immediate post Great War America going to be blended with Old Rus fantasy that included a three fold witch, an ogre, guardian spirits, houses on chicken legs, rusalkas, a forest deity, a dragon, and a host of creepy crawlies? Oh, and true love.
The main character of course is Vasilisa – a young teen (she’s thirteen, almost fourteen when the story starts) who must be the strong one of the family. Her immigrant Russian father has been reported as missing on the battlefields of Flanders, her pretty but fragile mother is being courted by a strange man whom Vasilisa fears without knowing quite why, and her beloved grandmother seems to be getting weaker both mentally and physically. Babka has raised Vasilisa (who was named for her) on the Slavic folktales of Old Russia. This is a good thing because it might be young Vasilisa’s knowledge of these stories that saves her.
It took me a while to settle into the story as there are many characters to be introduced and the entire backstory to fill in. It’s not done in an info dump, thank goodness, but there are situations that take some time to be completely understood. I do think it helped me to have a little bit of knowledge of Slavic folk/fairy tales some of which I got from other books I’ve read (The Bear and the Nightingale) and some from lavishly made movies which I watched being savaged on MST3K.
One thing that induces twinges of disquiet throughout the story is how much of the time Vasilisa and Ivan seem to be much older than their stated ages (13/14 [Vasilisa has a birthday over the course of the story] and 15) while they are often referred to as “the children.” I guess “teens” wouldn’t have sounded quite right for the period. But there are other bits of dialog that even if they are not anachronistic, they sound that way so why not use “teens.”
Once the background and characters are in place, the tale begins to make more sense. Then as the scene changes from 1919 Pennsylvania to “below” in Old Rus, it really takes off. Characters change – both Ivan and Vasilisa grow up and into their roles of saving themselves, their loved ones, and seeking revenge. But at the same time Vasilisa goes from somewhat of a prickly loner to something of a Disney Princess who charms wolves, dragons, and – in a scene that might induce heebie jeebies – some creepy crawly creatures. Then to have these teens profess undying love at their ages (though there is nothing more than kisses here) is a little bit disturbing to say the least.
But, but … I love the sections of the book set in Russia. I could see the silent, snow covered birch forests. The traditional Russian hospitality to strangers is heartwarming. The household domovy can be impish yet also tetchy. Leshy can help but at a price. Be careful feeding the lock of the bone fence around Baba Yaga’s izba but if you ask it nicely, the house on chicken legs will often turn around and settle down so you may enter it. Dragons sometimes don’t act as you’d expect but rusalkas always do. Baba Yaga must be pinned down with oaths and watch out for her “children.”
The messages that are delivered through the goals and actions of Vasilisa and Ivan – that love is stronger than hate, that to give into anger and revenge will scar the one who does it, that force will be heeded but acts of kindness are never forgotten – are powerful and something we should all remember. I found the Old Rus ending a bit rushed and uncertain though this might be setting up what’s to come in the next book. The outcome of the story is never much in doubt which does lessen the tension but it’s fun to see the plot linked to the fairy tales and to read a story that’s a little bit out of the ordinary. B-