Gods of the Steppe
This novel is part coming-of-age story for a 12-year-old boy, and part critique of a mining operation near a remote village in the Russian Steppe. It is summer 1945, and the boy, Petka, constantly fantasizes about being in the war. He idolizes the troops at a nearby army base and finds ways to sneak in and soak up the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, most of the characters in this story are unsavory – including the main protagonist. The only likeable character is a Japanese POW, Hirotaro, who is a physician expert in using herbs, with which he attempts to cure ailments of his fellows and their Russian captors. The Japanese POWs are forced to work in the mine, which happens to be laced with uranium, causing an excessively high death rate among the POWs. The POW physician makes a connection between the POW death rate and the mutations of various plants in the vicinity, but no one will listen to him. In the end he temporarily cures Valerka, Petka’s closest friend, and Petka, who grew up hating the Japanese because of government propaganda and war fever, develops a close bond with this particular Japanese.
American readers will find the first 2/3 of this book difficult to plow through, as there does not seem to be any central plot, and many of the actions of the characters seem a little too contrived, and even silly. There are, however, numerous intriguing subplots – left unfulfilled until the epilogue. The epilogue is nice.