Witness to the end of an empire

A young girl caught in the chaos of czarist Russia's collapse

Set in 1914 St. Petersburg, Gloria Whelan's "Angel on the Square" is a story that expertly explores two sides of the complicated unrest that brought about the Russian Revolution.

Katya Ivanova's mother is an aristocrat and lady-in-waiting to the Empress Alexandra. As a teenager in this regal setting, Katya takes lessons and goes on vacations with the imperial family. Tsar Nicolai II is like a father to her, and his luxurious and seemingly civilized lifestyle has the weight and legitimacy of many years' tradition.

At the same time, Katya's friend Misha wants to teach her about the suffering and unrest fomenting outside the palace walls. When Misha is sent to fight in World War I and the old Russia crumbles under the ensuing chaos, Katya cannot avoid the conflict between the old way of life and the future of the Russia that she loves.

One of the most stunning aspects of Whelan's story is her poetic descriptions. (Her "Homeless Bird" won the National Book Award last year for young adult fiction.) Katya's aristocratic life is made luminously evident in an array of subtle, but sumptuous details. Marble bathrooms, sapphires that remind Katya of the "clearest, deepest blue water," trains that have been made into plush, ornamented drawing rooms, thousand-acre country estates - these are the things that Katya at first takes for granted, and the means by which the author transports her readers to another time.

The book's historical insights add substantially to its power. Whelan includes the brief career of Alexander Kerensky, the man who called for the abdication of Nicolai II, but who could not realize his dream of a democratic Russia, and Rasputin, the strange holy man who exerted so much power over Russia's last royal family.

A glossary of Russian terms also helps young readers make sense of this thrilling, if tragic, period.

And yet, like the goose-down quilts and sumptuous silks that adorn young Katya Ivanova's pre-revolutionary Russia, "Angel on the Square," may be enjoyed without effort.

Courtney Williamson is a freelance writer in Marblehead, Mass.

Angel on the Square

By Gloria Whelan

HarperCollins

293 pp., $15.95

Ages 10 and up

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