A ghost story for middle-graders by Eugene Yelchin offers an atmospheric portrait of Czarist Russia.
The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt, 2016, 299 pages.
Reading Level: Middle grades, 8-10
Recommended for: ages 8-12
“I was the last of an ancient lineage, so when the invitation arrived from Falcon House for me to take up my noble duties, I knew the time had come for me to cut my mother’s apron strings.” Thus Prince Lev Lvov, age eleven, sets out for St. Petersburg and the family estate of his late grandfather. Now the huge mansion is ruled by his elderly-wheelchair bound aunt Olga and a staff of creaky retainers. Aunt Olga finds Lev a promising heir, especially as he looks exactly like photographs of her sainted father when he was that age. But why does she want him to spend his first night in his grandfather’s spooky study? And why doesn’t she acknowledge the peasant boy who befriends Lev (and gets him into trouble)?
Yelchin is an interesting writer (see Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Arcady’s Goal) and a scary one when he’s sharing the experiences of his own family in Soviet Russia. For this story he goes back to the days of Czar Alexander II and packs in another type of scare. It’s a ghost story, supposedly based on a handwritten manuscript the author found as a schoolboy and later translated into English. Yelchin is economical with words but eloquent in the line drawings scattered throughout the text. By word and line a picture emerges of Czarist Russia, haunted by past sins and teetering, like Aunt Olga, on the verge of collapse As the Author’s Note reminds us, “If he had remained in Russia, it would have taken a miracle for Lev to survive the calamities that followed [World War I].” A young reader doesn’t need to know all this to enjoy the story for its rather moderate scares, but the setting and atmosphere will contribute to a general knowledge of world history.
Cautions: Supernatural (It’s a ghost story!)
Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)