Masha Rasputin, and her younger sister Varya, became the wards of deposed Tsar Nickolay Romanov in 1917 shortly after her father’s mutilated body is pulled from the river. The daughter of Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, known better as the Mad Monk Rasputin, she understands the only safe place for them is with the tsar and his family even though she would rather leave St. Petersburg to be with her mother back in Siberia. Masha and Varya leave for the imperial palace and soon find themselves under arrest with the royal family.
Hoping that Masha has inherited some of her father’s mythical healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks Masha to attend her son Alyosha, the tsarevich and next in line to carry on the Romanov dynasty. Sick since birth — his hemophilia is unspoken of and he is never seen in public unless healthy — Alyosha suffers from extreme loneliness and is burdened with the knowledge that he will die earlier than expected. Terrified of the slightest bump causing unseen, and unstoppable bleeding, the tsarina prays constantly for his health and will do anything she can to keep him safe, including bringing in Rasputin to heal him when necessary. While she never directly says it, she wants the same thing from Masha, who knows she cannot provide the same reassurance, or healing powers, the tsarina is looking for.
What Masha can do is tell stories and she spends her days with Alyosha telling him about her family, every detail of her father’s life, their home in Siberia, her love of horses, and they discuss what they would do if they were to escape. Alyosha knows their lives will end but doesn’t speak of this to anyone but Masha who fears he may be correct but doesn’t want to believe too strongly in his convictions. Their stories and time together become an escape, not only the loneliness they both suffer from, but from daily reminders of what little life holds for them at the moment.
If you know anything about the Romonovs, it’s a sad time for this once powerful family. The tsar no longer holds any power and the tsarina has lost herself in her religion spending her days praying for the safety of her son almost oblivious to the fact there is nothing left of their former life. The four Romanov daughters are not spoken of much but are mostly just background players filling out the tableau of characters. It’s all about Masha and Alyosha and the stories she’s telling him — her own form of healing therapy. While she doesn’t have the healing powers of her father, she can distract Alyosha and take him away from the horror that has become their lives.
Each chapter in this book is a small story tied together by the people involved. You can’t really think of this book as traditional with a beginning, middle, and end but if you take each chapter as a story of its own, it’s an intriguing book. No, things won’t tie up nice and neat but you will get the thread of story as if someone were telling you about their time with a dear friend and what they spoke about and did during their time together. It’s also a very sweet love story of two teenagers who know they have no future together but spend each day trying to forget what they can’t change. They’re in an untenable situation but they manage to seek out the only the joy they can find.
This book is aptly named. The story, while in no way linear, is a tale of love and hardship that spans years. Harrison doesn’t ignore the ghost of death hanging over everyone but manages to make the situation one of hope and a life dreamed of outside of palace walls.