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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

'Anastasia's Secret' by Susanne DUNLAP

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

The Romanov family have been ousted from the imperial palace by the Bolsheviks and exiled to Siberia. Life as a privileged member of the Russian Royalty has come to a shattering end.
As the debate about their future rages within the ranks of the newly empowered, Anastasia, youngest daughter of the Tsar Nicholas, discovers love – and with it all the secrets and danger this brings into her strange new life.

Will the strength of that love be enough to save Anastasia from her tragic fate? What happened in the last days of the Romanov family? And did Russia's last princess live in love after all?

Inspired by the mysteries that have long surrounded the last days of the Romanov family, Susanne Dunlap's new novel is a haunting vision of the life – and imagined love story – of Russia's last princess.

In his preface to ‘Leaves of Grace’, Walt Whitman wrote: “As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances. . .” a beautiful sentiment, perfectly captured in Susanne Dunlap’s historical young adult novel, ‘Anastasia’s Secret’.

The Russian revolution fascinates for many reasons, but especially for being a case of history sadly repeating itself - echoing the bloody French Revolution, particularly in the role that the imperial family played in unfolding the future... The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the creation of the Soviet Union which in turn opened an entirely new chapter in European history... but amidst the horrors of World War I, the grandeur of a proletariat uprising and the promise of Leninism there was one sad note in history whose tune would carry on in the world’s imagination...

The Russian Revolution saw Russia’s Tsarist autocracy destroyed. An imperial family who had divinely ruled Russia since the 16th century was overthrown and cast aside, and the imperial family of the time was left to the fate of revolution. Susanne Dunlap’s book ‘Anastasia’s Secret’ is their story, retold and recounted with equal parts imagination and accuracy in this beautiful and bittersweet young adult novel.

Dunlap’s story is told from the first-person perspective of the most infamous member of the royal Romanov family - Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov. Her father was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Her mother was Alexandra Feodorovna, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Anastasia was the fourth of five siblings; with three older sisters Olga, Tatiana and Maria, and one younger brother named Alexei. But her blueblood royalty is not the reason she has remained in infamy...

If you know the story of Anastasia and the Romanov family, then Dunlap’s book is full of bittersweet foreboding. Even more so when the prologue begins in May 1918, a mere month before the family is to become victims of history. The book then backtracks to 1913, when Anastasia is 12-years-old and meets Alexander Mikhailovich Galliapin, or ‘Sasha’ as she will come to call him. Sasha is in the Composites, a corps who guards one of the Tsar’s many palaces. He is an imagination of Dunlap – a boy soldier whom Anastasia befriends over a mutual love of ‘peasant’ music and who offers her insights into the world beyond the palace walls, sometimes telling hard truths about the troubled times and the Romanov families portrayal to the ‘common’ people;
“That way of thinking is what will ruin your family and all of the Russian nobility as you know it,” he said.
Perhaps it is farfetched that Anastasia would befriend a common soldier; but Sasha is Dunlap’s biggest flight of fancy in the novel, and he really is a pivotal fictionalization. If it weren’t for Sasha, the entire book would be quite narrow for Anastasia’s perspective of the world around her. Not through any fault of her own, but because of her sheltered royal upbringing. At times Sasha is a soapbox (befitting his Bolshevik-leanings, or appearance of) spouting newspaper diatribes and anti-imperialist propaganda - but his meetings with Anastasia begin to mould her world view, contextualize historic events and push the story’s pace.

But above all else, Sasha is vital to the book for being Anastasia’s ‘secret’. As they remain friends through the troubles in Petrograd, the Bolshevik uprising and the 1917 revolution, Sasha becomes the one constant in Anastasia’s life, and what started as a friendship becomes a heated romance.Dunlap’s attention to detail and history is superb. She has breathed life into research and made endearing characters out of historical figures. It’s wonderful to read the Romanov’s day-to-day life, the many ways in which they were just a regular family and the slowly forming cracks and fissures that would be studied and examined by historians for years.

Some of Dunlap’s best characterization is in the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. If you’re a history geek like me (for whom the Russian Revolution holds a special fascination) then you’ll already have a lot of background knowledge about these historical players. Tsar Nicholas II as a family man completely unsuited to the military roles he would insist on performing. The Empress Alexandra, a victim of circumstance for having German blood at the worst possible moment in history, and her lack of self-awareness. Dunlap has really finessed these characters – and as a lover and studier of Russian history, I could tell that she condensed a lot of character research and secondary sources into a child’s perspective of her family. There’s one moment in the novel when the family is in exile, and Nicholas says he is bored and can find nothing to do – and Anastasia realizes her father’s utter lack of imagination. That one insight that Anastasia has into her father is worth countless chapters in a history book.

Dunlap does it time and time again – weaving her literary magic through history. It’s little things, like Alexei Romanov trying to make his voice deeper, despite the pain etched in his face. It’s Nicholas referring to his wife as ‘Sunny’ and refusing to heed his mother’s advice. All of this is Dunlap beautifully twining history with character and creating a distinctive voice for the dead and dusted.

I was particularly impressed by Dunlap’s woven history when she refused to make Rasputin a major player in the novel. I’m sure it was mighty tempting to make more of him than he was – purely because there’s so much myth and mystery surrounding him. But if you’ve ever studied Russian history then you know that Rasputin was really just a blip on the map, a small-time player that history has written more gossip than fact. It’s frustrating (especially because he had such a big role in the Disney animated version!). But I’m glad Dunlap relegated Rasputin to the book’s periphery – though his scenes are spine-chillingly creepy nonetheless. In ‘Anastasia’s Secret’, as is also true of history, Rasputin has more significance in superstition than he ever did in life. Fantastic!
Anastasia’s voice is really the stand-out in this novel that offers so much. Dunlap has perfectly captured Anastasia in moments of time – from the age of 12 when she is an inquisitively perceptive young child who has a unique view of the world;
Moscow! I loved Moscow. It was so different from Petrograd. The onion domes and colourful buildings, the ancient history from the days before the tsars.
To her growing up with a reformed world view, courtesy of Sasha. Anastasia is a revered and beloved historical figure, and I was impressed by how well Dunlap imbued her with independence and charisma.

I did have one small problem with the book – that there was a lot of summary over scene. I completely understand why Dunlap needed to summarize so many events and moments – a lot happened leading into the Russian revolution between the events of 1913 and 1917. Dunlap had a very hard task condensing a lot of history in order to keep the pace moving towards pivotal scenes. . . but there were times when I wished she hadn’t stuck so closely to timeline and had had more fun with the book. I would have liked more interaction between Anastasia and her siblings, and just a general departure from the rigidity of summarized history. There are often pages and pages without action or dialogue, and I could see that becoming dry for some younger readers. . . but for the most part I loved it all – the details and fascinating facts, I lapped them all up - even while recognizing the many summaries as a potential problem.

I will say that the book didn’t end where I thought it would. At first I was a little frustrated; there was a gruesome, fatalist part of me that wanted to see the story through to the bitter end. But upon reflection I realize the story didn’t need it. Foreboding permeates the entire novel (even if you’re not a Russian history-aficionado) and it’s befitting that Dunlap leaves reader’s in a similar mindset to Anastasia at the end of the novel; unsure of the future, begrudgingly hopeful and for the moment unaware of what is to come.
I repeated the conversation as accurately as I could.
“You mean, we could be free?” Olga said.
“Except Papa and Mama won’t agree to it, because they don’t want to leave Russia or split us up.”
“I would never want to leave Mama and Papa,” Mashka said. “I’d rather stay here and face whatever is coming with them.”
Susanne Dunlap set herself a hard task by tackling one of the most intricate of revolutions, and fictionalizing one of the world’s most infamous historical figures. But she does a smashing job – weaving history and romance against the backdrop of a beautiful and forbidding Russia. Sublime.



  1. Why do you have to write such amazing and extravagant reviews? I'm not as much of a history nut as you, it seems, so my review isn't as FULL OUT as this. I really did love ANASTASIA'S SECRET, though. I definitely see myself re-reading it in the future. Being someone who only vaguely knew what happened during the Russian Revolution (especially the end), I found it both historically invigorating and informative, as well as just a wonderful story.

    I'm still unsure about the ending. I mean, I did seem it fitting that the narrative ends with hope, and that sense of journey and togetherness...but, I don't know. Maybe I should discredit my uncertainty about it, since it would have been extremely hard to write about the "end" if it were in her perspective. :/

    Gave it 4.5 as well. I'm so glad I read it though. :D Makes me sad that I didn't pick up some historical fiction early, only recently.

  2. great review and it sounds very good, but not really my cup of tea hehe

    btw... dying to see what you think of Double Cross! =P

  3. @ Cass - yes, I really reveal my history geekiness in this review :) I'm just glad that International History course I took at university is paying off... all those 5,000-word essays on the turning points of the Russian Revolution and the role the Imperial family played in preventing revolution in 1905 and succumbing in 1917.

    I totally agree about the ending, btw. But I'm okay with it.

  4. The animated movie was made by 20th century, not disney....

  5. i like the book alot its facinating and amazing

  6. what really happened to anastasia?

    1. For many decades there were false Anastasia's - women who came forward claiming to be the Russian princes. One woman called Anna Anderson even entered into a length legal battle from 1938-1970 to prove she was the real Anastasia.

      There were also reports of Bolshevik soldiers searching trains and safe houses for Anastasia Romanov shortly after her supposed death - leading many to believe she had escaped her family's fate some how. This was further compounded because only 3 partial skeletons were found at the burial sight - leading to more speculations that some soldiers had helped Anastasia to escape.

      Sadly, technology put an end to the fanciful hope that Anastasia survived and went into hiding. DNA testing in 1994 proved that Anna Anderson was an impostor. And in 2007 a Russian archaeologist found burned, partial skeletons at a bonfire where a Bolshevik soldier wrote in his memoirs they'd gotten rid of the bodies. Further DNA testing (through many different laboratories) proved these to be the remains of young Alexei and one of his sisters - meaning all five Romanov bodies are now accounted for. None of them survived, they died together.

      There have been countless documentaries made about the Anastasia impostors - but I'm not sure of any that now include the conclusive 2007 DNA evidence ruling out any possibility of her survival.


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