Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller

The Lost Crown is a well researched historical novel about the final years of the Russian Imperial family before they were all murdered in 1918 by the Communist revolutionaries. The story is told in the voices of each of Tsar Nicholas II's four daughters, Olga, Maria, Tatiana and Anastasia.

The novel opens describing the idyllic and somewhat sheltered life of the Russian royal family in June of 1914. The only time the family's life is disturbed is when Aleksei, who is a hemophiliac, injures himself and bleeds uncontrollably. In August 1914, war breaks out in Europe. To Tatiana it makes no sense. Russia takes the side of the Serbians, meaning her people will have to fight Austria and Germany - the mother country of the Empress Alexandra. How can they fight their cousins?

In Catherine Place, across from the Imperial Palace, a lazaret (infirmary) is set up for the wounded soldiers who are brought in by train to Tsarskoe Selo. There the Empress and her daughters tend to the soldiers. Tatiana is proud to earn her Red Cross nursing certificate and is a competent nurse. Her older sister Olga, however, has great difficulty coping with the gore and the intense suffering of the soldiers.

At first the soldiers are thrilled to have their Empress and her daughters care for them. But as the war stretches on and more and more Russian men are chewed up in the conflict, there are murmurings against the Tsar and his German Empress. Perhaps the German-born Empress is a spy?

When the war goes badly for Russia, Nicholas II assumes command of the Russian army, even though he is only a colonel in the army. As more and more men die and the impoverished nation sinks further into dissent and mutiny, the Tsar decides to abdicate his throne in an attempt to quell the peasant uprisings. Sadly this is only the beginning of the end.

The Imperial family are imprisoned in their palace at Tsarskoe Selo, after most of the royal regiments desert the family. At this time the Duchesses are ill with the measles. Colonel Kobylinsky, commandant of the new palace guard at Tsarskoe Selo tries his best to protect the Tsar and mitigate the actions of the Bolsheviks. The Tsar and his family meet the head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky who decides that Nicholas and Alexandra must be separated from each other and their family until they are questioned.

As the revolution progresses, the imperial family is moved from Tsarskoe Selo to Tobolsk in Siberia. There they are restricted to living in an old "mansion" which is repaired for them. They are not allowed to visit the town nor to have contact with anyone.

The Lost Crown is in some respects a fascinating and detailed read about the last years of the Imperial family of Russia. There is no doubt that Sarah Miller researched her subject matter very well. There's lots of attention to detail and creative imagining of conversations between family members. She is able to convey as sense that the Romanov's were a caring, tender family, if not naive and completely unaware of the seriousness of their plight.

The entire novel is permeated by a deep sense of tragedy because of course, the reader knows the outcome for the Tsar and his beloved family. It is a foreshadowing of the brutality and horror that all of Russia, as it evolves into the communist Soviet Union, will sink to during the next 70 years. However, because the reader likely knows how this will end for the family, there is no real suspense to the novel, only a fictional telling of the family's last days alive in captivity.

Although the author has opted to write this novel in a very ambitious way, through the voices of all four of the Duchesses, I felt this didn't contribute much to the story nor enhance the way it was told. At times it was difficult to discern little if any difference in the voice of one Duchess from another. This along with the random alternating of who was telling the story made it difficult to remember who was narrating at any particular time without referring back to the beginning of the chapter. I think the novel could have been written just as effectively using only the voice Olga or perhaps Olga and Tatiana instead of all four sisters.

The back of the novel has an extensive Epilogue with black and white pictures of the family, an author's note and also information on further reading. The Lost Crown is one of several recent books on the Imperial family of Russia including Anastasia's Secret by Susanne Dunlap. For those readers who would like a more serious historical fiction, Miller's book is the better of the two. It takes it's subject matter more seriously and it has the backing of detailed research into the Romanov family and Russia.

For those wishing to explore the Russian Imperial family further Sarah Miller recommends the website, which appears to have extensive digital reproductions of primary source material.

Book Details:
The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller
New York: Simon and Schuster Children's Publishers 2011
412 pp.

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