Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief

‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ by Katrina Nannestad, award-winning author of ‘We Are Wolves’, is one of our family’s favourite read aloud books of 2021. ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ has been responsible for many later than usual bed times as we were utterly captivated by this story. This historical fiction book is inspired by real people and real events and much research has been used to make the story historically accurate by retelling what life was like in war torn Russia in 1942 through the eyes of Sasha, a Russian six-year-old boy soldier. In the Author’s Note at the back of the book it sheds light on Katrina’s deep sense of responsibility to honour the people that lived through these catastrophic events. Katrina’s aim is to accurately portray Russian culture, places, battles as well as the daily life of the Red Army soldiers and the devastatingly tragic losses, immeasurable suffering, devastation and injustice the Soviet people endured during the Second World War. Even though this story explores the unimaginable horrors of war and the human face of war, it does this in such an accessible and sensitive way for children. It is also a story of hope and highlights the power of courage, love and friendship. It shows the complexities of war, the futility and that everyone loses in a war.

At the beginning of this story the reader is introduced to Sasha who is in hospital after sustaining multiple injuries. He is is mute because of the trauma he has experienced. When all the soldiers are sleeping, under the veil of darkness, Sasha manages to get out of bed and steal certain objects which he hides in his mattress. All of these stolen items trigger memories from his past and give him the ability to eventually tell his story to the medical staff and soldiers in the hospital.  

There is so much to appreciate and love about this book. Katrina Nannestad masterfully contrasts the blissful times of peace with the ugliness of war. Telling the story through flashbacks heightens the suspense. This engaging literary device relies on using seemingly unrelated objects to trigger memories from the war and reveal snippets of Sasha’s story from the past.

The characters weave a special magic straight into your heart. Sasha is inspiring and endearing. He sees light and love where darkness and pain exist. Sasha never fails to lift the spirits of his comrades, even when they at their lowest of low. He shows such love, grace, warmth and kindness to all those he meets even if it is not reciprocated. There is one powerful scene where Sasha brings enormous comfort to Luka, an enemy soldier in a dug-out, he didn’t have to, but he chose to, as he saw that this soldier was not a monster, he saw him as a father, papa and a husband and realised that all of the soldiers, German and Russian, are more alike than they are different. He doesn’t let the ugliness creep into his heart and has a strong moral compass that guides his actions and decisions. Sasha uses wonderfully imaginative and witty stories, song and hugs to provide hope in times of such tragedy and loss which is a beautiful gift to everyone. It is impossible to not become invested in the cast of fictional characters, each with unique qualities that together complement each other and make for a dynamic and interesting group of soldiers. Major Scruff, affectionately known as Papa Scruff, is wise, kind, empathetic and encouraging. He becomes a much loved father figure to Sasha who lost his own Papa, Mama and sister at the beginning of the war. Invincible Ivan, giant in stature with a head the size of a pumpkin narrowly avoids catastrophic injuries in each battle. He has the most wound stripes sewn into his tunic. Nurse Natasha referred to as the most beautiful soldier in the Russian army bravely goes out to battles with the soldiers each day and then spends her evenings tirelessly and compassionately tending to wounded soldiers. Cook, he is resourceful in a time where food is scarce, but still prepares Kasha for the soldiers and ensures they are fed. Other characters include Itchy Lutsenko who suffers with the lice, Windy Rustkov who often has an upset tummy after eating Cook’s food, Grumpy Boris who underneath his tough façade has a soft heart, one that really does appreciate Sasha’s kindness and Tolstoy, the clever camel who is easy to befriend.

Fascinating facts about Russian culture and this historical period are seamlessly woven into the story, for example the way soldiers received letters from their wives with pieces of string which were used to convey how tall their children were. The soldiers were able to tell from the lengths of string how much their children had grown while they were away fighting in the war.

This book is inspired by a true story of a boy, Sergey Aleshkov, who was around six to eight years old when he joined the Red Army and served in a non-combat role.

This powerful and moving story is a stunning example of light and love not only existing, but shining in a time of horrific suffering. It shows seemingly small acts of kindness can have a monumental effect and touch a legion of hearts. This story has touched our hearts and will certainly stay with us for years to come.

Link to a Teaching Guide PDF can be accessed via Harper Collins Publishers Australia website

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