How many young people know the story of the battle of Stalingrad? Not many probably and for good reason: it’s hard enough to comprehend the horror of it even as an adult. Yet Stalingrad was the most important battle of World War II. Nicola Pierce’s excellent novel takes us inside the city during the terrible days of 1942 and describes what took place there through the eyes of young people involved. It’s vivid and moving, a true and affecting report of what happened and why.
Pierce has two groups of central characters: 14-year-old Yuri and five-year-old Peter are two of the many children who were trapped in the city as the fighting started. Left with no surviving family, they hide in the ruins, scavenging for food and dodging bombs and bullets. Vlad, Anton and Leo are young recruits to the army, only 16 years old themselves, sent into the battle with no training, no weapons, no orders other than to meet up with other Russian soldiers should they survive. The horror of the situation the boys are in is unimaginable, but we see them coping, kept going by the hope that one day life will go back to normal. Pierce never underplays the horror, but this matter of fact reporting makes the story even more powerful. There are glimpses of insight all the time, Tanya, the young girl who becomes Yuri and Peter’s de facto family, talks about fear, ‘It’s the strongest emotion, more powerful than happiness, sadness or even anger. I believe it can make a heart stop beating.’ After hand to hand fighting, Vlad is told, ‘Don’t think how many you have to kill; instead think about how many Russians you are going to save.’ Pierce is careful too to show both sets of soldiers as human, without shying away from descriptions of the terrible acts they commit. The true villains are Hitler and Stalin, both prepared to sacrifice thousands of their countrymen.
The book ends peacefully, the battle finally won, though at enormous cost. There is happiness in particular for Leo and Tanya, though Pierce provides a hint of what is to come for the Russians who survived. A truthful, proper end therefore to a book that will give readers real insight into one of the most important episodes or modern European history.