Recommended for ages 9-14.
Author Randi Barrow's debut novel, Saving Zasha, was one of my favorite historical fiction titles of 2011, and was recognized with many honors. Not only was it terrific historical fiction, it was a great dog story, one that could appeal equally to both boys and girls. I was therefore excited to read her newest novel, Finding Zasha, a prequel to Saving Zasha.
Set in the middle of World War II Russia, Finding Zasha is another page-turner, filled with adventure, danger, and yes, adorable German shepherd puppies being raised by the Nazis for nefarious purposes. As the novel opens, we meet our hero, twelve-year old Ivan, who lives in Leningrad with his mother and loves to play his concertina. When Leningrad is besieged by the Germans and its citizenry begin to starve, Ivan's mother sends him on a dangerous journey across a frozen lake to stay with an uncle in the countryside. But as the Germans march across Russia, this seemingly safe town, too, is occupied by the Germans, and Ivan is determined to help the war effort by joining the Partisans, who work secretly to undermine the Nazis however possible.
When a Nazi officer, the sadistic Major Recht, discovers Ivan's musical talents, he brings him to stay in the German camp, a valuable opportunity for Ivan to discover information which he can feed to the partisans. At Nazi headquarters, Ivan also befriends two adorable German shepherd puppies, Thor and Zasha. The Nazi commander plans to train the puppies to hunt Russians, and then breed them to create a corps of Russian-hating dogs. Ivan can't imagine a worse fate for the innocent puppies, and dreams of somehow rescuing the prized dogs from their Nazi handlers.
When a turn of events in the war provides an opportunity for Ivan and the puppies to escape the Nazi's clutches, he's separated from Zasha, and is torn between trying to rescue her and possibly put the partisans in danger or saving himself and the other puppy Thor. And he lives with the knowledge that the vindictive Recht will stop at nothing to get his prized dogs back. Will he ever find safety for himself and the dogs?
Once again, Randi Barrow has penned an outstanding title with appeal for boys and girls alike, a "historical thriller" (a phrase I borrow from author Laurie Halse Anderson) that will especially capture the imagination of animal lovers, students interested in history and World War II, and anyone who enjoys a good adventure novel. I had a hard time putting the book down, as I followed Ivan's nail-biting story of the hardships of life in Leningrad during the Nazi siege, his harrowing journey out of Leningrad, his life with the partisans and under the nose of the Nazis, and his eventual escape. This book can be read with or without having read its companion novel, Saving Zasha, although undoubtedly those who have read one of the books will be eager to read the other.
The author includes a helpful afterword on Russia and World War II, which gives some historical context to the story, particularly to Hitler's campaign against Russia, the siege of Leningrad, during which one and a half million civilians starved, and the role of the partisans in Russia's war effort.