A young boy in 1827 struggles to keep his new home in this debut children’s book.
After losing his Russian father and Aleut mother in the same year, Misha Alexandrov must travel from Archangel, Alaska, to the Ross Fortress in Northern California. He is accompanying Dimitri Makarova, his father’s best friend, who is starting work as a carpenter in the settlement. But Misha’s stay in his new home is almost instantly beset by a run of bad luck, and Stepan Tarasov, the construction foreman, becomes convinced that the boy is a jinx. Tarasov insists that Misha must prove his worth to the settlement or else he will be sent back to Alaska and an uncertain future. Misha has found a community with Chilan, a Kashaya Native American boy who is his first friend, and Kanoa, the Hawaiian man who rooms with Misha and Dimitri. Misha does not want to return to Alaska, but there are few opportunities for a young boy to prove himself. He must take whatever work he can get, endear himself to his fellow settlers, and avoid the wrath of Tarasov if he wants to stay in his new surroundings. Tanaka’s story sheds light on a little-known component of California colonization and the multicultural settlement at the real Fort Ross in what is now Sonoma County. Though the novel uses the classic children’s-literature trope of an orphan, it works hard to emphasize the importance of families of choice and underscores the many ways that a boy can find mentors and guardians. The book’s main flaw is its pacing, as it seems to be in a rush to find completion, which comes at the cost of a fuller sense of the cast. Scenes that could be expanded and that would show Misha’s growth as a character to greater effect, such as the initial mistrust felt by the local villagers toward the boy, are rushed through in a handful of pages. The story is at its best when focusing on characterization, such as explaining Dimitri’s reasons for taking in Misha or fleshing out Kanoa.
A solid, heartwarming tale about an orphan’s travails.