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Vail book review: Boy grows through war’s ordeals

Stephen Bedford
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado “-Are you considered a thief if you’re stealing to survive?

Therein lies one of the themes of David Benioff’s excellent “City of Thieves,” a novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a thieving one at that, in the throes of war and winter.

Few writers could turn a tale of the siege of Leningrad into a buddy-buddy, coming-of-age story that manages to solicit laughs and winces, but Benioff does it with ease, wit, and a startling sense of the gruesome atrocities of World War II.

Lev Beniov is a shy teenager whose poet father was whisked away by the secret police. Facing a food shortage, Lev and his friends loot the corpse of a wayward paratrooper in search of rations and warm clothing. Lev, being slow and scared, is captured and imprisoned.

His cellmate is Kolya, an older boy who’s been accused of deserting his squadron. The two are thrust together in harrowing circumstances only to be sent on a fool’s errand ” the Soviet colonel pledges the boys’ freedom in exchange for a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.

But never has a fool’s errand been as enlightening as the trip on which the two boys embark. Trudging through sub-zero, snow-packed Russia, they try to elude military forces, road agents, and a couple who take a certain fancy to our intrepid duo.

From here Benioff takes us not just on an actual journey but an adventure in manhood. Lev is coerced out of his shell by the boisterous blowhard Kolya, who’s wise to the way of women and filled with carnal knowledge. Kolya hopes to make a protege of his accidental compatriot.

Meanwhile, Kolya realizes maybe he’s grown up too fast. His desertion of the military was perhaps not so much a failure to conform to the Big Red Machine’s goals as a yearning to be carefree and innocent again.

The book’s ending will perhaps have you laughing and crying at the same time at an ultimate irony ” one not unseen by the would-be novelist Kolya.

Benioff’s story moves along at an impressive pace, a rarity for literary historical fiction. He wastes no words and doesn’t spend paragraphs telling you just how cold it is during the dead of winter in Russia. He assumes you can imagine it yourself, a trait desperately needed for scores of longwinded novelists.

“City of Thieves” is a relatively thin book that’s thick on plot. It can satisfy whatever you’re looking for in a novel: brevity, action, dialogue, history ” just don’t steal it, please.


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