What is the title of your book? The pub date and publisher? Genre? Targeted age group?
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia; July 2014; Schwartz-Wade/Random House Books for Young Readers; historical nonfiction; 12 and up
Where is it set?
Imperial Russia 1880-1917
In 70 words or less, provide a succinct plot description of your story.
The Russian royal family is living a fairy-tale existence. The richest man on the planet, Tsar Nicholas II owns one-sixth of the world’s land, thirty palaces, five yachts, an endless collection of priceless painting and sculpture, two private trains, countless horses, carriage and cars, and vaults overflowing with precious jewels. The Romanovs have it all! But Nicholas is a man of limited political ability. He’s simply not suited to rule Russia. And a charismatic, self-proclaimed holy man named Rasputin spellbinds his wife, Alexandra. She believes Rasputin can save her hemophiliac son, Alexei, from bleeding to death. Desperate, she will do anything – anything — including handing over the reins of power to the evil monk.
Links to reviews or blurbs you wish to share:
Does your book have a starred review from Kirkus? If so, could you provide the link?
Yes, as well as named a Kirkus Best Teen Book 2014
How are you connected to the setting of your story?
For me, it’s imperative to visit the places where my story happened. Landscapes speak. Houses hold memories and secrets. So in August 2012 I traveled to Russia where I followed in the Romanov’s footsteps, visiting Rasputin’s apartment; exploring worker’s neighborhoods, Lenin’s headquarters and the dark, dank jail cells of the Peter and Paul Fortress.
At Tsarskoe Selo – the family’s residence — I wandered down shaded lands and through lush gardens. I didn’t just learn how the place looked. I discovered how fragrant the lilacs are after a rain shower; how the ornamental bridge creaks when you cross it; how cool and dark it is in the woods. No historical document could have given me that.
None of my sources had mentioned how close the Alexander Palace sat to the front gate, either. I’d assumed it was somewhere in the middle of the Imperial Park, far from prying eyes. Not so. The tall, main gate with its golden, double headed eagle opens directly onto the palace’s circular driveway. Every day the family could look through its iron grillwork to the town just on the other side. It gave me pause. The family was so close to it’s people. They were right there, just on the other side of the gate. The Romanovs could look out their windows and see them. They could hear their people’s voices from the palace balcony. They could smell their cooking and their livestock. They really weren’t as physically removed from the people as sources led me to believe. So why, I wondered, didn’t the Romanovs feel more attachment to their subjects? The question led me down entirely new paths of thought. And it eventually led to the book’s inclusion of first hand worker and peasant accounts under the title, “Beyond the Palace Gates.” I had uncovered a detail that presented a new story line I’d never imagined.
What inspired you to write this story?
In truth, I’d never considered writing about the Romanovs until about five years ago. That’s when students in middle schools – mostly girls — suddenly and surprisingly started asking if I knew anything about Anastasia Romanov. Practically every time I visited a school, during the question-and-answer period of my presentation, a hand would wave wildly in the air. No matter that I’d come to talk about people from American history. Time and again I’d find myself talking about Tsar Nicholas’ youngest daughter. Why, I asked myself. Why the sudden interest in Anastasia? I eventually came to realize that these middle schoolers had seen the animated movie, Anastasia. They recognized that it was based on a nugget of truth. But what was that truth? They longed to know. And they hoped I could tell them. Sadly, in the little time allotted, I really couldn’t… not enough anyway. And so I began to conceive of a book for them. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion And The Fall Of Imperial Russia, is my answer to those girls’ questions. Is it the royal fairy tale most of them imagined? Probably not, but it’s definitely the truth. And I believe that’s exactly what they wanted.
What was the biggest challenge you had writing your story? How did you overcome it?
Pictures of ordinary Russians – peasants, workers, and soldiers – were exceedingly difficult to come by. These were people living marginalized lives. Most couldn’t afford to have themselves photographed, nor would they have considered flitting away hard earned money on such an expense. They certainly didn’t own cameras, or have the resources to develop film. This meant, of course, that they relied on outside chroniclers. So did I. Happily for all of us, Nicholas commissioned a photographer named Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii to visually document the empire. Produkin-Gorskii traveled the length of the country just before World War I, catching on film the ordinary lives of ordinary Russians. Best of all, he left those photographs – hundreds in all – to the Library of Congress. They’re heartrendingly beautiful. One can’t help but wonder if Nicholas ever saw them. But you can. The Library of Congress had digitized them and made them available online. Go take a look!
What kind of story can we expect next from you? Is it set outside of the United States? If so, where? And what is it about?
My next nonfiction book is about William F. “Buffalo Bill Cody.” While some parts of the story are set in Europe – London, France, Venice – the majority of the action takes place in America.
What else would you like us to know about you or your story?
Since The Family Romanov is nonfiction the characters are based on historical accounts. I didn’t make anything up. I did, however, find myself identifying with certain people in the Romanov’s story. I felt a real sadness for the oldest daughter, Olga. She obviously understood what was happening to the family toward the end. She read newspapers and asked questions. And as all hope of escape slipped away, she turned inward. Imagine her sadness, her sense of loss, and her anger. After the Romanov’s murder, an icon was found in the rooms in which the family had been held. On the back in Olga’s hand was written the following prayer. Whether she wrote it herself, or copied it from someplace else is not known, but it must have reflected her feelings during the last days of her captivity:
Give Patience, Lord to us, Thy Children,
In these dark stormy days to bear
The persecution of our people,
The torture falling to our shores.
Give strength, Just God, to us who need it,
The persecutors to forgive,
Our heavy, painful cross to carry
And Thy great meekness to achieve.
When we are plundered and insulted,
In days of mutinous unrest
We turn for help to Thee, Christ Savior,
That we may stand the bitter test.
Lord of the word, God of creation,
Give us Thy blessing through our prayer
Give peace of heart to us, O Master,
This hour of utmost dread to bear.
And on the threshold of the grave,
Breathe power divine into our clay
That we, Thy children, may find strength
In meekness for our foes to pray.
Stuart Little. It was the first book I fell into; the first book that transported me beyond my family’s living room sofa to someplace purely imaginary and yet so, so real.
Where can readers go to learn more information?
Thank you Candace Fleming for joining us at World Reads! The Family Romanov was my favorite book in 2014 and among my all-time favorites. It is well researched and written and completely engaging. Well done!