The executions of Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra, along with their entire family --- four girls and a young boy --- make for both a sad read and a sad page in the history of Russia. It is painfully evident that Nicholas was a wonderful husband and father. Yet, this must be balanced with the fact that he was a horrific Tsar (known as Bloody Nicholas along those who opposed him), with millions dying under his rule. Reading Robert Alexander's enthralling yet flawed novel, THE KITCHEN BOY, I struggled with the deaths of the innocent children, especially Alexei, their hemophiliac son who was heir to the throne. Robert Alexander brings all their lives into sharp focus through the voice of Leonka, the Romanov family's kitchen boy, whose voice tells this heart-wrenching story.
When Russia entered World War I, Tsar Nicholas effectively destroyed the lives of millions of Russians under his care. A revolution gained momentum and the Bolsheviks made the Tsar abdicate the throne, sending him and his family away to the Ipatiev House ("The House of Special Purpose"). Alexander faithfully recreates their final days here through extensive research and with much feeling. The reader begins to understand the hatred many Russians had towards the Romanov family but also feels the warmth, love and nobility that no crown can give the Romanovs. The family is aware that nearly all hope is lost and that death is coming closer. That fateful day came on July 16, 1918. Leonka is spared his life and is sent away before the Romanovs are shuttled down into the basement. However, he does witness their deaths and, hidden in shadows, follows the executioners as they depose of the bodies.
Alexander has, of course, done his research --- so much in fact that the narrator, Leonka, shares his information most willingly. Leonka just happens to have a reference library all about the Romanovs, so if he wasn't there to witness an event or know what a secret note said, he simply finds out in a book and tells the reader about it. I wonder if Alexander, with all the copious amounts of research he threw into his fiction, would have been better off had he just written a nonfiction book about the Tsar's last days.
As we read, we learn that the bodies of two members of the Romanov family were never found. What happened to them? Were they burned as the executioners themselves said (although you can't burn bodies completely away on an open fire)? Luckily for the reader, Leonka knows. With a double twist at the end, we find out what happened in that basement and how those two went missing.
THE KITCHEN BOY is a faithful attempt to recreate the final tragic days of the Romanov family. In fact, the Romanov Family Association praises the book on the back cover. It is affecting and haunting, gruesome yet loving. It piques the reader's curiosity about the Tsar and the missing children. Many readers will find themselves going to the library, looking for the definitive non-fiction book about those final days of the last Tsar of Russia. Perhaps Alexander could have written it.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on January 22, 2011