WINTER GARDEN by Kristin Hannah narrated by Susan Ericksen

Having just finished Katherine Arden’s WINTERLIGHT trilogy of Russian folktales set in 1300s Rus, it was absolutely fascinating to read about the Siege of Leningrad presented as the Russian folktale THE PEASANT GIRL AND THE PRINCE.

Here is a collage I put together to illustrate the Russian Folktale “The Peasant Girl and the Prince” as presented in THE WINTER GARDEN. Vera is seated at right dressed in gold, embroidering, while younger sister Olga (dressed in green) looks on. Both young women are dressed in traditional Russian costume. Love interest Sasha stands in the foreground garbed in the clothes of a Russian officer at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

WINTER GARDEN is not the easiest book to read. Many readers will be put off by the beginning which features the maddeningly frigid Snow Maiden mother Anya Whitson, who seems to hate her daughters, her much more likable husband Evan, who is a loving father, and those two damaged daughters Meredith, who bears the brunt of her mother’s icicle nature, and Nina who escapes her family to become a famous photojournalist in Africa.

Much of the first third of the book is taken up with this family dysfunction, which grows more and more irritating as you realize just how stuck these people are.

The famed Bronze Horseman covered up during the Siege of Leningrad (8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944). In the background you can see St Isaac’s Cathedral, which also features on Ms. Hannah’s cover. This 900-day siege caused the deaths of about a million people, mostly from starvation and hypothermia, due to inhabiting buildings with no heat during the below-freezing winters. But Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) never surrendered to the German army.

Things do not start to warm up until the death of beloved father Evan. Not surprisingly I expected the family to blow apart, and not be on speakers. But Evan exerts power beyond the grave, having extracted a promise from younger daughter Nina to persuade their mother to tell them THE PEASANT GIRL AND THE PRINCE tale to the end.

Meredith, hurt and impatient, sees no good in forcing their icy mother to tell a fairy tale. But this is no ordinary story. Instead, it is Anya’s autobiography, from seeing her father dragged away by Stalin’s minions just after she’s met the love of her life at age 15, to having her first child at 17 and her second at 18, from the Second World War beginning when she is just 22 years old, the havoc and tragedy of a great city (Leningrad aka St. Petersburg) under siege from German airplanes, the hunger, the starvation, the deaths of 700,000 people from starvation including the elderly and the very young. (Anya loses her grandmother to fire, her mother and son to starvation, her husband and daughter to explosion.)

The cover features St. Isaacs’s Cathedral Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg.

It becomes clear by the end of this excruciating tale that Anya has been suffering from PTSD for most of her life, turning her into a traumatized woman who has no emotional energy left for her two younger daughters born in America.

Everyone in this family suffers from the fallout of Anya’s emotional devastation. But, as in other novels, author Kristin Hannah delivers a Happy Ending.

Five stars for a truly tremendous tale, which foreshadows THE NIGHTINGALE.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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