I walked into my local indie bookstore the other day, Blue Elephant Books, and asked for their recommendations for a long plane ride. You see, I was flying to Seattle on a standby ticket, which is always unpredictable, and it is always likely that I will spend countless hours stuck somewhere (Hello Cincinnati Airport! I’m talking to you!). There is nothing worse than being stuck somewhere for hours without a good book. The lovely ladies of Blue Elephant did not disappoint me by handing me City of Thieves by David Benioff (paperback, May 2009, Penguin imprint Plume). It is a historical fiction novel set during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, which I knew very little about (don’t judge my lack of knowledge! I don’t read a lot of WWII books!). I knew it was awful and lasted years, which meant I had no clue what I was getting into with City of Thieves.
I want to start by saying that I never would have picked this book up on my own. I like my reading time to be light and relaxing. I think that is why I enjoy YA so much, while it can deal with darker themes, you know that a majority of the time, things will come together in the end. This book reminded me why I need to make more room for grown up books even if it means I end up alternately laughing and crying on airplanes, making the person next to me nervous and the flight attendants unnecessarily concerned for my well being.
As I mentioned before, the book takes place during the Nazi siege of Leningrad around 1942. Lev Beniov is a 17 year old kid trying to survive the war and desperately wanting to be useful even though he is still too young to join the army. One night, a Nazi soldier parachutes onto Lev’s street and is dead by the time he lands. Him and his friends run to investigate and begin to loot the body, only to be interrupted by Russian soldiers. By taking time to help his friends escape, Lev is himself captured and taken to prison where he is later joined by a deserter, Kolya. Both assume they will be shot in the morning, as the penalty for looting and desertion is death. However, instead of death, a powerful Soviet colonel sends them on a fools errand, to find a dozen eggs for his daughters wedding cake before the week is out. This quest leads them through Leningrad and into Nazi occupied Russia and is highlighted with run ins with cannibals, soldiers, violence and a bit of much needed humor.
At the end of the day, I must admit that I was not prepared for this book. Benioff clearly did his research and didn’t shy away from the horrors of war and of the Siege of Leningrad in particular. When you read something like this, we all like to picture that we would be the hero, that we would do the right thing, we would be the exception to that human reaction to run from danger and save ourselves. Only a handful of us would stand our ground and that is the struggle throughout the story that Lev has to face. He doesn’t always do the courageous thing. Sometimes he desperately wants to and is frozen on the spot. The story is about a boy becoming a man, facing his fear and at the end of the day fighting himself to be the hero in the eleventh hour.
City of Thieves is beautiful and devastating, morbid and vivacious…. and ultimately, incredibly human.