Summary: Living in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1930s, Annette is the daughter of two Russian Jews eager to return home to Joseph Stalin’s communist Russia. Used to living in Canada, Annette is less than enthusiastic about being uprooted, but the hope and optimism Russia harbours for the future under their new regime is contagious. The start of World War II begins to reveal all is not what it seems though, and as Annette grows she is faced with reconciling the propaganda with the truth. Surviving the war is an achievement in itself as it comes at a very high personal cost for Annette, except the struggle isn’t over as Stalin’s regime proves itself to be harsh and anti-Semitic after all. About to lose another loved one due to charges of treason, Annette makes a drastic choice to hang on to what she has in anyway she can.
Number of Pages: 324
Age Range: 16-18
Review: As an adult Annette reflects back on her life and the choices she has made, she finds herself going back to the memories of her childhood up to her thirties.
Because The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov is a work of historical fiction, there are so many moments when it is clear the decisions made are the direct downfall in the lives of the characters. If Annette’s father hadn’t gone back to Russia to inquire about passports for his family, if Annette’s mother hadn’t been so determined to go back to Odessa and then so stubborn about staying, if Vladimir had never met Anatoly, everything would have been different. Lives would have been saved and paths changed, but as Annette knows from years of examining her choices, if she unravelled them even a little bit, her daughter would never have existed.
Still, Tregebov’s examination of these choices and the role they played is fascinating as she covers the role of decisions we have no control over in our lives and contrasts them with the decisions we make ourselves. Because she is looking back on her life, Annette is a wonderfully self-aware character who is able to consider all of these choices in her life. When her brother comes from Canada to offer Annette a choice after the death of her parents, I was still surprised by her decision even though it was my second time reading the book.
Like Graffiti Knight by Karen Bass, I also loved the historical aspect because I learned a great deal. Annette’s parents are so incredibly hopeful that Stalin’s Russia is one where Jews are considered equal and everyone is working together for the betterment of the people. It is heart-breaking to find out how wrong they are, but witnessing the situation from Annette’s point-of-view is an eye-opening experience. Annette herself is a creative thinker with a great deal of heart, and while I was shocked by her actions at times Tregelov does an excellent job of showing what motivates her.
Tregebov’s stylistic choice of having Annette considering her life from the viewpoint of old age makes her book accessible to both teen and adult audiences, but I like it for older teens as a well-written, contemplative read that would do well in a Canadian Literature class.
“That’s why the work of the memory is so perilous, why it hurts to do it. It gives you back what you had and with it what you’ve lost: my parents, my brother, Vladimir. I know them dead, now. Know them as I never knew them when they were alive, their lives complete, completed. Change is over; possibility’s over. It’s done. My father will never grow older; my mother will never soften. They never saw a grandchild, never knew my daughter or her son. What do I really know of them, with my child’s perspective, afraid of who they were, what they meant to me, what I mean because of them?” – Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 14
“‘All change is loss.’ I read that in another poem once. Life changes us; we have no choice but to change. And sometimes we turn into a distorted version of what we could have been, what we were.” – Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 20
“When the fireworks started, the sky was full of coloured bits of light, red and green and sparkly blue, some like flowers, some like pinwheels. And noises: pops like bubbles bursting for the little lights and a shaky boom for the bigger ones. Then a noise came that was so loud the ground shuddered and I shuddered with it and a big flower of light bloomed right on top of my head. It got bigger and bigger in the sky, came closer and closer till I felt the sky come down to touch, till I felt the light inside my chest, breathed in light till I was full with it.” – Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 33
“Mr. Spratt smoothers the crease in his trousers, wipes his forehead again. ‘Sometimes I think we’re more afraid of what’s inside us than what’s outside us, Princess. Or maybe we’re afraid that what’s inside us isn’t strong enough to fight what’s outside us. Maybe that’s why we hear something inside us that scares us. But don’t be afraid of the knife sharpener. He’s just an old man trying to make a living like everybody else.” – Mr. Spratt reassuring Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 40
“And the war. Hitler dreamt it. It’s all desire: cities and streets and governments and wars, anything built by people. Hitler wanted his ‘living space.’ Germany wasn’t enough for him. He willed a war. No, that’s not true either. It wasn’t Hitler alone: it wasn’t one man. Not Hitler and not Lenin and not Stalin. Someone wished them into being, dreamt along with them. Whole peoples, nations, believers who dreamt them into power. Awake and dreaming, they’d made it all.” – Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 141
“Then, suddenly, I can’t look at them. I pull my hand away, walk out of the room, away from their helplessness, uselessness. Walk past Vladimir, out of the apartment, down the stairs, into the street. If I don’t stop, if I keep walking, if I can keep my mind at bay, I won’t have to think about Poppa, my mother, what these useless grown-ups have done to me.” – Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 165
“I made the promise knowing I have no right to, that they may take Pavel, bundle him along with Polankov into a Black Raven paddy wagon, and that will be the end. My words do nothing. I can no more stop the men from taking Pavel than I could stop my father’s train, and where it took us all. Than I could keep my parents safe from whatever has taken them in Odessa. We’re specks spun along this current, we count for nothing.” – Annette from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 176
“‘Scared that we’re fooling ourselves.’ He reaches for the kaleidoscope, trains it briefly on my face, then sets it down. ‘I’m scared that we keep wanting to see this country the way it was meant to be, the way it could be, the way it used to be – and not how it is. It’s like kids telling themselves a story to keep from getting afraid. We tell ourselves one that makes us feel better, that lets us keep on hoping. But maybe that story is just a lie.'” – Vladimir from The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, page 261