Eva Ibbotson was a prolific author whose books I loved as a child. I read and re-read Which Witch? and The Great Ghost Rescue when I was younger, and her books have always been a delight.
I rediscovered her when I started volunteering to hear children read in schools, and found that she had written a handful of books for older readers. I started with the wonderful Return to the River Sea and was then entranced by The Secret Countess. I have just finished The Star of Kazan, and loved that too.
The Star of Kazan tells the story of Annika, abandoned in a church somewhere in the Austrian Tyrol and found by two Viennese servants who have come to the mountains on their day off. The nuns in the Viennese orphanage are unable to take the baby because of a typhoid outbreak, and the servants are forced to take the baby home to the house where they work for three, eccentric professors who are brothers and sisters. The professors swear that the baby can only stay with them until the nuns are free to take the baby, but Annika worms her way into their hearts, and grows up in the household, beloved of all.
Annika is perfectly happy, surrounded by people who love her, and makes great friends with all the families who also live in the square where her adopted family have their home. She still dreams that one day her real mother will come and find her, but when it finally happens, the dream is not all it appears, and Annika finds herself taken away from all that she loves, and actually in considerable danger.
This book is just delicious. Ibbotson has a deft way of describing life in early Twentieth century Vienna that really brings it to life. She depicts a vibrant, wonderful place filled with music, fun fairs, pastries, and the famous Lippizaner horses. She makes you want to be there yourself. She writes with love and a great deal of subtle humour and a real feeling for the way a child like Annika would think.
There is just the right amount of menace to this story to make it compelling without being frightening. There is just the right hint of romance to make it readable and not too mushy. It is perfectly balanced.
It is a proper, old fashioned adventure story, but written with great style and a modern touch that makes it eminently readable.
It reminded me in some ways of Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. I think perhaps it is the parentless child in a house full of eccentric academics side of things that did it. As I love that book too, and it was a mainstay of my childhood reading, it only increased my affection for this book.
I highly recommend it for girls aged 8-12.