New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House, 2014

It is a skilled writer that can keep readers in suspense, even when they know the outcome of the story. Candice Fleming tells this compelling  story of the last ruling Romanovs, and helps us make sense of the situation by taking a few pages at the beginning to explain some aspects of Russian protocol and custom to do with the characters and the timeline.

Throughout the story we learn about Nicolas’ and Alexandra’s incompetence exhibited in one bad, thoughtless decision after another in their attempt to govern Russia.  However, they were easily manipulated and put their faith in the wrong people, and were much more interested in raising their family and enjoying life than steering their empire through the dark times of the early 20th Century.  Nicolas is not fully to blame, though, as he had no Tsar training; his father refused to teach him how to rule.  It seems no one really wanted Nicolas to become Tsar, least of all Nicolas.

To balance the story, Fleming includes excerpts from resources and writings of Russians outside the nobility. Set apart from the rest of the text, the testimonies from “Beyond the Palace Gates” introduce us to peasants, factory workers, children, authors and others whose stories provide a stark contrast to the lives of the Tsar’s family and friends. The abject poverty in which the Tsar’s subjects lived is shocking; it is easy to see why they revolted.

Although Nicolas and Alexandra might deserve a good slap to snap them out of their foolishness, they are not unsympathetic characters.  We get the feeling from this account that they were more clueless than malicious.  The Romanovs were a close and loving family and seemed to be liked by those that knew them personally.  Even after the revolution, many of the guards that kept them prisoner liked them, and some of their servants even chose to be imprisoned with them rather than leave them. They endured illness, heartbreak, and disappointment, just like everyone.  The family was deeply religious, and were even canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church after their deaths.

This book, if taken as a class project, provides lots of questions for class or small group discussion.  Would Russia still be ruled by a monarchy if Nicolas II had made better decisions? If he had been more aware of the state of his military, would Russia have conceded in WWI? If he had taken the time to notice the plight of lower class Russians and helped them, would Lenin have come to power? Those “what if’s” are impossible to answer with certainty, but knowing its origins can spark a thoughtful discussion on monarchy, communism and democracy.

The Family Romanov is certainly deserving of the awards and buzz it has received and should be included in high school library collections.  It is full of photographs of the people and places mentioned, maps, diagrams and web resources.  It includes a complete bibliography and a section addressing primary sources.

Idaho Core Standards: Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies: Grades 9-10, Standards 1-6, 8, 9.  Grades 11-12, Standards 1-9.

Dewey: 947.08                                                           Interest Level: YA

Awards and Reviews: Booklist starred; Horn Book Starred; Library Media Connection; Publishers Weekly starred; School Library Journal starred; Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) starred; Sibert Informational Book Honor; YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist.

Middle school readers might like: Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov by Mary Englar.

Elementary readers might like: Look What Came from Russia by Miles Harvey.

Fiction Pairing: Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. (Be sure to check out the CIA back story that goes along with this novel!)

On the Web:

Alexander Palace Time Machine includes photos, maps, interview and interrogation transcripts, and much more.  Good source for primary documents.

Film: BBC – Russian Revolution (1840-1921) – available in 8-12 minute segments on YouTube.