British author Dan Smith makes his American debut with THE CHILD THIEF, a compelling thriller that takes place during the winter of 1930 in the Soviet Union. Luka Mikhailovich Sidorov lives in the remote Ukrainian village of Vyriv, where he works on a small farm with his wife, Natalia, daughter Lara, and twin sons Victor and Petro. A soldier and veteran of two soviet armies, Luka now seeks the quiet life, far removed from the chaos of Soviet politics and brutality. His deepest instincts reveal him as a hunter/gatherer rather than a farmer, which he lives out on a daily basis.
Hunting one day in the frozen tundra outside his village, Luka sees a single sled being drug through the drifts by a lone stranger. When the man collapses, Luka trudges to aid him. Underneath the sled’s cover are two frozen and dead children, and the man pulling the sled is near death. Luka brings them to his house, making villagers curious but aloof because they fear soviet soldiers coming to the village to take possessions, homes and property for the new communist state. Any stranger will be unwelcome.
"Not only is THE CHILD THIEF a thrilling survivalist mystery, it is also a personality study of Luka: soldier, farmer, warrior and father.... Smith’s background in world travels will certainly be good fodder for future novels. His talent should keep fans happy for some time."
Luka and his sons bury the dead youngsters and discover a brutality so inhuman that someone has performed upon them. The man inside Luka’s house may be their father, or a predator. Word leaks that the children have been maimed. Villagers, led by Luka’s own brother-in-law, Dimitri, become aroused to violence and seek mob justice upon the stranger, who has not yet awakened to defend himself. Chaos evolves, and villagers seize and murder the stranger. Lara and Dimitri’s eight-year-old daughter, Dariya, may have witnessed adult atrocity.
Later, Lara returns home with her brother, but Dariya stays in the field, running into the trees when Lara left her. Dimitri soon becomes uncontrollable when his daughter does not come home and fears the worst. Luka joins the townspeople in the search for his niece but has mixed feelings toward them because of the day’s events. Still, he alone has the skills necessary to track footprints in the snowy tundra and into wooded areas. Dimitri blames Lara for not telling him that Dariya ran toward the woods. The two men fight but are stopped when tracks are located, though are not those of a young girl. The footprints indicate that a man carries a burden, perhaps a child.
Luka’s skills, learned from years in the army, transcend those of local farmers and of Dimitri. He alone will be able to track the man he now calls the “Child Thief.” His training as a sniper will become his ally, teaching his sons the wilderness survival skills he has developed over many years.
Not only is THE CHILD THIEF a thrilling survivalist mystery, it is also a personality study of Luka: soldier, farmer, warrior and father. He realizes the differences and similarities growing in both his sons. He always looked upon Petro as the quieter, more homelike of the two, while Viktor was the aggressor. Now, his eyes see them in new light, appreciating both and loving them more than ever. During a lengthy journey in the harsh winter, Luka’s promise to find Dariya and his yearning to return to his family become his greatest challenges.
Dan Smith’s artistry in telling this brutal story invites readers to understand a portion of history previously unheralded. The manner that Russian communism seeped into its remotest regions unfolds to us through the people living in tiny villages and the soldiers who rode onto them, with violence and inhumanity. We see the gulags, communes and helplessness felt by the victims. THE CHILD THIEF is dark but not without a light shining into the future --- the light of hope.
Smith’s background in world travels will certainly be good fodder for future novels. His talent should keep fans happy for some time.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on July 19, 2013