Robert Alexander is the pen name of Robert D. Zimmerman, author of psychological thrillers, children’s books and historical fiction. This 2003 novel takes one of the most brutal acts of mass murder of the 20th century, the complete obliteration of the Romanov dynasty of Russia, and puts a new twist on it. Over the almost 100 years since that early July morning, 1918, when Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna, their four daughters and Alexei Nicholaevich, heir to the Russian throne, along with four of their attendants who had voluntarily joined the imperial family in exile, were executed in a small cellar room in the House of Special Purpose in Yekaterinburg. Carefully preserved documents — letters, telegrams, diaries, official orders, smuggled messages — rumours, claims of survivors, and archaeologist excavations have pieced together the events of that night with reasonable accuracy. One of the mysteries has been the missing bodies of two of the children from the mass grave. Alexander has imagined the events of that night, and the days leading up to it through the eyes of The Kitchen Boy, Leonka Sednyov, who was sent home earlier in the day, July 16th, and disappeared into the confusion of the revolution.
The narrator of the story is Dyedushka Misha. The time — summer, 1998; the place — Lake Forest village, Illinois. He says he is 94 years old, that he was born in Russia, and that he was that self-same kitchen boy who witnessed the murders of the last of the Romanovs. After a lifetime of lies, having lost his dear wife and son, Misha wishes to set down the events as he remembers them for his granddaughter, Katya, and entrust her to return to the people of Russia the wealth of jewels he and his wife took with them in their escape from Russia to America in 1918. He sets his story down on tape and leaves it in an envelope with the key to the secret vault behind the bookcase, just before he kills himself — because all these years he has carried the guilt of hastening the death of the imperial family. However, even in this final confession, Misha is continuing a deception which his granddaughter will doggedly track down and uncover.
Misha’s story reveals the tenderness of a loving family, the care and concern for each other but especially for Alexei who suffers greatly through the summer and is unable to walk and must be carried or pushed in a rolling wicker chaise. There are the games, and singing to keep spirits up; there is reading, and racing around the rooms with their dogs. Then there is the intense heat within the house because the windows are all sealed and painted over, and the hour, twice daily when they are allowed to walk in the garden for a bit of air. And always, there is the slovenly appearance of the guards, the pilfering of the family’s belongings, the senseless rules, and the cruel and malicious indignities. Daily, the women sew their precious jewels into their corsets and into the caps of Nicholas and Alexei so that if they should manage an escape, they might have the where-with-all to survive. In the midst of this boredom and hopelessness comes a chance — a message smuggled into the house and entrusted to the kitchen boy, Leonka — a ray of hope of rescue.
This is not a children’s book. The documented indignities and brutality are plainly laid out. The story is somewhat familiar to anyone who has read about the end of the Romanov dynasty but has many surprises throughout and keeps you guessing right up to the last page. Nothing is as it seems! * * * *
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