Zei, whose previous novels were set in the Greece of her own childhood 40 years ago, explains in a foreword that this story of 1890s Russia is based on a character and episode from a Russian novel (The Road That Opens Ahead by A. Broustein), ""fused with the little girl that I myself had been, in another country and another time."" Sasha, the little girl here, is the daughter of a small-town doctor who works hard caring for the poor even though they can't pay him--and who compares Sasha's endless questions to the mushrooms that spring up after a light rain. At first Sasha--who refers thereafter to her own questions as ""mushrooms"" and who calls her father Sesame for his habit of nibbling--is portrayed with an emphasis on that cute innocence which appeals more to adults than to other children; even so, she will probably manage to captivate most readers by the time she announces to her new French tutor: ""Mademoiselle Pauline, when I grow up I am going to be a wild animal tamer or an agitator."" (The tutor's response: ""Sashenka, I think I have begun to love you very much."") It's another tutor, revolutionary Pavel Grigorevitch, a former medical student and Siberian prisoner, who becomes the focus of the story when he is arrested for instigating a strike. This upsets Sasha's household, grieving even the maid who keeps icons in the kitchen and had earlier threatened to resign in protest against the ""jailbird's"" presence. And by the time that Father has traded his life-saving treatment of the Colonel's wife for the tutor's freedom (conditional, alas for Sasha, on his departure from town), Sasha has learned something about real bravery, and her childhood perception has grown to take in the injustice and heroism she sees around her. Zei, who doesn't overdo the growth in awareness, gives us an engaging portrait of an outgoing, observant little girl--and a skillfully distilled and filtered one of pre-Revolutionary Russia.