Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A foundling and her family

The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson

Claire of The Captive Reader recently posted about Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool, and reading her review reminded me first, how much I love Ibbotson's books; and second, that I haven't read any of her young-adult books.  I happened to be in Half Price Books a day or so later and when I went looking for Ibbotson, I was lucky enough to find The Star of Kazan.  I was sold the minute I saw it takes place in pre-war Vienna, which is also the setting of my favorite of her novels, Madensky Square.

The Star of the Kazan is the story of Annika, a foundling discovered in a small country church by Ellie, who with her friend Sigrid keeps house for three professors in Vienna.  A note pinned to the infant's shawl asks whoever finds her to take her "to the nuns in Vienna."  But a typhus epidemic in the city's foundling homes means their doors are closed in quarantine, and Ellie takes the baby home instead, just for the night.  The three professors, Julius the geologist, Emil the art historian, and Gertrude the musician, are initially horrified at this intrusion into their lives.  But in the end they agree that the baby can stay, though as Julius says, "We shall of course expect her to be useful."

Usefulness seems to have been one of Ibbotson's cardinal virtues, one that all her heroines share in different ways.  Like Ellen Carr in A Song for Summer (another favorite of mine), Annika finds joy and purpose in keeping house, and especially in cooking, as she works alongside and learns from Sigrid and Ellie.  And oh the food, described in such luscious detail, from the everyday goodness of a vanilla kipfel straight out of the oven to the great feasts like Christmas Eve with its stuffed carp.

By the time she is twelve, the year that Ellie assigned the cooking of the Christmas Eve carp to her, Annika has made her home not just in the professors' house but in the community of the square in which they live.  She has the gift of friendship, like Ellen Carr or Anna Grazinsky in A Countess Below Stairs, and the gift of making a home wherever she finds herself.  But even in the loving, ordered world of Brenner Square, Annika still dreams of her mother, who will one day arrive, tall and beautiful and richly dressed:
    "She swept into the house, saying, 'Where is she? Where is my long-lost daughter? Oh, take me to her,' and then she gathered Annika into her arms.
    "'My darling, my beloved child,' she said, and she explained why she'd had to leave Annika in the church. The explanation was complicated and it varied as Annika told herself the story. . ."
And then one day, this dream comes true.  The tall and beautiful and richly dressed Edeltraut von Tannenberg arrives to claim Annika as her long-lost daughter, and to take her to Norrland, to her family's home in northeast Germany.  Annika has found her mother, but that means losing Ellie, Sigrid and the professors, her friends in the square, and the magical city of Vienna itself.  Her joy and her immediate love for her mother carry her through this painful separation, as Annika looks forward to her new life at the family's estate in Spittal.

To say anything more, about what she finds there, about what happens to those left behind in Vienna, would give away too much of this wonderful story.  I found myself completely caught up in it, following its twists and turns, wanting to know what happens next and how it would all work out.  It's the kind of book I want to share, to give to other people, with those familiar words, "Here, you need to read this."  And I can't wait to read more of Ibbotson's young adult books, though with the TBR Double-Dare just days away, that will have to wait.


  1. Oh Lisa, I'm so glad you enjoyed this! I read it quickly after The Dragonfly Pool and was completely enthralled from start to finish. There are so many delightful plot twists and somehow Ibbotson manages to keep them all exciting and intriguing rather than tiresome. Though I think Ibbotson's greatest wizardry comes in making the Christmas carp sound so delicious! I don't care what you do to it, nutmeg or not, I shall never be made to like carp but here she had even me tempted.

    I too love the usefulness of Ibbotson's heroines; I'm currently rereading Magic Flutes and Tessa is astoundingly useful and, of course, I love her for it.

  2. I'm so glad that you posted about The Dragonfly Pool! I will be keeping an eye out for that one. I agree completely with you about how well she balances the different twists - some of which caught me by surprise. I also agree with you about the carp, though I've never actually tried it and don't plan to.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!