"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 23, 2015
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
by Erin Cowles

I have a new addiction, and I don't even have to tell my bishop about it.

I'm currently obsessed with YA nonfiction, especially history. I've been listening to it while I clean my house, and I enjoy it so much that my house has graduated from complete catastrophe to rather sloppy. My favorite of the lot has been Candice Fleming's The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia.

Fleming tells the story of the last royal family of Russia and its downfall. Although her focus is on the Romanovs, she weaves in the story of the social conditions and political forces that led the people to reject them and embrace communism.

Her epilogue briefly summarizes the decades after their deaths, where communism failed to improve conditions, as well as the controversies surrounding locating the Romanovs’ remains.

Fleming provides excellent historical context. You could pick up this book with only a vague sense that WWI happened and Russia was a somewhat important world power and be fine. Despite its focus on the uninitiated, Fleming supplies great context and insight into the people, ideas, and world events pushed history onto its course.

First person accounts keep the narrative lively and provide a good sense of the mindsets of those involved. Whether it is the czar's journal or an autobiography of a shop girl, these excerpts offer a deep understanding of the inequality, desperation, and willful naivety that led to the Romanovs’ downfall.

Even without Fleming's expert hand, the story of the Romanovs proves that real life surpasses fiction in craziness. In a book full of eccentrics, Czar Nicholas and Rasputin top the charts.

Czar Nicholas's mind-blowing incompetence shocked me. He was literally provided with no training before ruling Russia. None. His father refused to even let his bookish, scrawny son sit in on cabinet meetings because Nicholas embarrassed him.

His war minister convinced him that their army was so powerful, they didn't need to bother preparing ammunition or rations for six months after WWI began (spoiler alert: WWI lasted longer than 6 months).

Czar Nicholas had no grasp of the political tensions at play. On the night his government fell, and his ministers begged him to do something to address the situation, he declared he'd wait until the next day to think it over, and spent the evening playing dominoes. Dominoes. He never should have been put on a throne.

Rasputin, the seedy mystic con artist that somehow, for reasons still unexplained, could provide relief to the Czar's hemophiliac heir, Alexei. On one occasion, when Alexei's doctors had given him up for dead after weeks of suffering, the Romanovs telegraphed Rasputin in Siberia; he told them to send the doctors away, and Alexei rose the next morning completely recovered from his episode.

In gratitude, Empress Alexandra essentially granted him control of cabinet appointments, which he changed as frequently as he found someone to flatter him or grant him favors. I'll save the details for your reading, but his assassination is all kinds of wild.

There is definitely violence in this book. After all, the Romanov dynasty ends with the czar, his wife, and his children being locked in a cellar and shot approximately 1000 times (because they had hidden so many jewels into their dresses that they functioned as a kind of bulletproof vest).

There are also depictions of war and rebellions being struck down. The violence is appropriately horrifying, but she strikes the right balance, and nothing feels gratuitous or voyeuristic.

The Family Romanov earned the distinction of being a Robert F. Sibert Honor book and a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist. You can find it on pretty much every significant best YA book list for 2014 (Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Washington Post … you get the picture). It deserves every ounce of that praise. Check it out.

Read this book if...

  • You've ever had the urge to learn more about history, but that 1000-page biography of Harry S Truman on your shelf makes you cower every time you walk by. The Family Romanov's 304 pages are much more manageable.

  • You need the cold, hard facts of history to break your Anastasia addiction — turns out Rasputin didn't really have a talking bat (although he is plenty interesting without fictional embellishment).

  • You like your history nuanced. Fleming holds her subjects accountable while still treating them with empathy.

Target audience: Ages 12+

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About Erin Cowles

Erin Cowles is a mother of two, living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Before motherhood, she used her masters in library and information science in a law firm library. Now she uses it to find good books for her family at her local public library. She teaches part time for a SAT prep company, where she enjoys the challenge of making rather dull subject matter interesting and making college a reality for her students. During women's history month, she profiles Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com.

Erin currently serves as a counselor in her ward's primary presidency.

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