Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sympony for the Dead

Symphony for the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad
M.T. Anderson
Candlewick, 2015
Grades 9-Up

M.T. Anderson, acclaimed author of the Octavian Nothing books, presents a factual account of the creation of Shostakovich's seventh symphony, placing it in its historical backdrop of the seize of Leningrad during World War II. The reader leans a brief history of the USSR and its relationship to Nazi Germany, eventually leading to the longest seize, and certainly one of the brutalist, in world history. Shostakovich, one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, initially welcomes the Communist Revolution, lives in fear of Stalin's purging, endues the loss of friends and colleagues, and finally, faces starvation of himself and his family as his home city of Leningrad fall under Nazi control. Shostakovich and his wife and children manage to escape, but both his and his wife's extended families are left behind to freeze and starve. The Seventh Symphony was begun in Leningrad in the early days of the war, briefly lost while Shostakovich was fleeing, and eventually recovered and completed much to world acclaim. What follows is a harrowing account of propaganda, suffering, starvation, and Nazi cruelty. The human instinct to survive and the fortitude of the Russian people is displayed in this glimpse into recent history that it practically too unbelievable to be true. 

Very little is written about the Russian front of World War II and, specifically, the seize of Leningrad for young people, which is surprising because it is an amazing and fascinating chapter of world history. Somewhat familiar with the Russian front, I had no idea of the extent of the siege of Leningrad and the horrors the Nazis inflicted on the Russian people, who they considered to be sub-human. Beyond an account of the war, this is a book about music and its power to inspire. People were willing to die to protect, distribute and perform this important symphony. The symphony, itself, begs to be listened to upon reading this account and may expose young people to classical music beyond Mozart and Bach. Photos help to tell the tale and place the book withing its historic framework. Anderson certainly did his research. The book ends with extensive notes, bibliography, and index. Although carefully researched and not fictionalized, Symphony for the Dead reads like fiction. It is too brutal to be true, yet the account is carefully documented. Teens will devour this book, much as I did. Once you start reading, you can't get the book out of your mind, and you must keep going. Be aware: some of the accounts are graphic and the starving people resort to cannibalistic means in order to survive, which may disturb more sensitive readers. Another potential problem is getting teens to pick up this book and give it a try. It may be a hard initial sell, but well worth the effort.

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