Another spontaneous Newbery for me- this one was on display at the local library and I picked it up when I saw the medal on the cover, since I was between Newbery books and the blog was due for an update!
Sasha Zaichik lives a comparatively charmed life in Stalinist Russia. Although he and his father share an apartment with 46 other individuals, the two of them have the biggest bedroom and are well provided for. Sasha's father is a well-respected member of State Security, and Sasha fully believes in all of the principles that society, school, and his father have taught him. The top student in his class, Sasha's most ardent wish is about to come true. He is about to be inducted into the Young Pioneers (in a nutshell, the Stalinist equivalent of the Hitler Youth). He'll finally be able to proudly wear the red kerchief and strengthen his character to become the best Communist he can be. And Sasha's father is to preside over the induction ceremony!
Sasha's worldview quickly changes, however, over the course of the two days covered in this book. The night before the ceremony, Sasha's father is arrested and taken away by State Security. One of their flatmates has informed on him and wastes no time taking over the large bedroom for his own family. Officials from the orphanage will return for Sasha in the morning, but Sasha doesn't wait. He's certain a mistake has been made, and once Stalin finds out he'll be very angry and rectify it immediately! In the meantime, he goes to see his aunt Larisa, but is turned out. She and her husband have a new baby and they would be at risk if they offered shelter to some one of questionable character. So Sasha patiently spends the night in their basement and heads to school the next day.
At school, Sasha pretends that nothing has happened. He is intended to carry the banner at the Young Pioneers ceremony, a great honor, and no one at school seems to know, so he likewise keeps quiet. But he starts to notice small in justices over the course of the day. Sasha notices that some children are repressed and picked on because of the supposed crimes of their parents, not what they themselves have said or done. And standing in opposition to the group when they're persecuting some one, even if they are wrong, is the fastest way to become a target yourself (despite the Young Pioneers principle of always acting according to a clear conscience). He realizes that he will be the next to fall, and there are plenty who would gladly see him fall from such an exalted position. And when he unintentionally breaks the nose of the school's statue of Stalin, unseen by anyone but a single enemy from his class, he realizes how dangerous things truly are for him.
I'll not spoil the ending for you, but I'll mention that the book does have a brief afterword. Usually I'm not a fan of afterwords, but I found this one useful and not too long to be bothersome. And since the author grew up in Soviet Russia, I thought he might have something interesting to say about what he meant to do with this book. What he had set out to do, and did marvelously, was to give expression and examine the pervasive fear that permeated every aspect of the lives of the Russian people living during this time (and even after the death of Stalin). It's been a long time since I was the target age for this book so it's hard for me to know what knowledge a young reader would bring with him when picking this one up, but even now it makes me want to learn more.