Philip Kerr, il. Eva Kolenko (cover)
2014, Alfred A. Knopf, imprint of Random House
(paperback is Ember imprint of RH)
“Oh, the Przewalski’s are strong, sir. None stronger. And they’re clever, too. Resourceful. Cunning, even.”
In late 1941, zookeeper Maxim Borisovich Melknik is the only worker left at the State Steppe Nature Reserve of the Ukraine, or Askaniya-Nova. The Germans, busy expanding their eastern front, have arrived in the form of a group of SS led by Captain Grenzmann. Maxim, who recalls the German founder of Askaniya-Nova with great fondness and is not the most enthusiastic of Communists, is prepared to give Grenzmann and his men the benefit of the doubt. Until they start eating his animals.
The reserve consists of a zoo and a large wildlife preserve; the crown jewel of this remote Soviet park is the herd of Przewalski horses. Grenzmann, a restless German, begins almost immediately to search for a way to eradicate these “inferior” horses. He’s largely successful, but a breeding pair (Temukin and Borte) escapes and the increasingly obsessed Nazi launches a hunt for the dangerously fertile horses.
At the same time, a member of another dangerously inferior race is hiding out at the reserve. Kalinka, a Jewish girl who’d barely escaped the mass murder of her family, is making the reserve one more stop in her endless journey of escape:
“Three uncles, three aunts, my brothers, my sisters, my grandparents, my great-grandmother, and all my cousins. Everyone had to gather in the botanical gardens in our city. Which is where it happened. I mean, where they and all the others were killed. Not just my family. But every family. At least, every family that was Jewish. Fifteen or twenty thousand people. I’m not sure.”
Kalinka is charmed by her encounters with the herds of Przewalski, and horrified when the Germans machine-gun most of them. But that horror is only the latest in her histories of grief and death, and she almost immediately has to worry about surviving a Russian winter.
Maxim and his dog, a Borzoi/Russian Wolfhound named Taras, help Kalinka survive a blizzard, but she can’t stay there. Grenzmann’s passion to kill those last horses leads him straight to Kalinka, who must run again.
Przewalski horses are, as the book admits, wild. You do not ride them, you do not halter or pet them. They’re closer to zebras than to ponies. During the first half of the book, the horses are shown to be smart and insightful and a little more accepting of handling than you’d expect, which the humans note and chalk up to their extreme need. But in the second half of the book, as Kalinka sets out alone into the snowy landscape with only the horses and Taras for company, the animals become the drivers of the action and all but speak to one another. Kalinka, dependent on the horses for warmth at the very least, is briefly the dependent of the animals.
With jaws bared viciously, the first wolf – a big male – launched himself like a streak of snarling gray lightning at the girl, only to be met by a perfectly judged double kick from Temujin as both the stallion’s rear hooves lashed out in unison and connected very solidly with the wolf’s body
Despite the hostility of the wolves (historically symbolic of the Nazis), the worst, most enduring dangers come from humans. For a time, all the humans they encounter are brutal monsters.
An interesting book, blending realism and a WWII legend nicely.
About the Author
Kerr is best known for a series of spy thrillers, but has also written other children's books under the name P.B. Kerr.
Book optioned for animated film
Website for Askaniya-Nova