Ivan is a 12 year old boy living in Leningrad when the Germans start bombing the city during WWII. Soon the city is cut off and supplies are running out. People are starving and freezing every day. Ivan lives with his mother in an apartment building in the city. Their upstairs neighbor Auntie Vera moves in with them when her apartment is damaged during a bombing. Auntie starts teaching Ivan all about how to survive during wartime, lessons she learned during WWI. Soon Auntie and Ivan are going to leave the city. Ivan’s mother works in a factory that is being moved to the Ural Mountains. Auntie and Ivan are going to take the ice road over the lake and out of Leningrad. They end up with Auntie’s sister-in-law in Vilnov. Soon they have joined the partisans, the people fighting against the Germans throughout Russia. Ivan catches the attention of Major Axel Recht because he plays the concertina so well. Ivan is moved into the Nazi headquarters and also starts taking care of Recht’s two German Shepherd puppies Zasha and Thor. Ivan is completely attached to the puppies and wants to save them from Recht. When the time comes to leave Vilnov, Ivan and the partisans take the puppies with them. They escape to Uncle Boris’s cabin in the woods where they spend the rest of the war.
I didn’t realize this was a prequel to another book until I was finished reading it. I guess the sequel takes up the story of Zasha and what happens to her after she is taken at the end of this book. I found the historical aspects of this story interesting. The Russian side of WWII is not one we in the west hear about a lot so a different perspective was nice. However, I didn’t find Ivan that great of a character. He was fine except for the role he had to play. I didn’t believe he could be a partisan; he just wasn’t sneaky or calm enough. He acted on his emotions too much and put the mission in danger several times. I also found it a little far fetched that this group would welcome him in so quickly and completely. I enjoyed his attachment to the dogs but also thought that was a bit over the top as well. The first part of the book was all excitement and adventure, but the back half really slowed down as the final years of the war passed. Some kids will stick this one out but it is not for everyone.