Anne Fine is best known for her book: Mrs Doubtfire which was made into a hugely popular film starring Robin Williams. In schools she is best known for her book: Flour Babies, which is often used as a teaching tool to show children how to care for something other than themselves. Another popular book by Fine which appears in schools is Bill’s Dress. These stories are, for the most part focussed on home, and family and domestic, every day dramas, played out through her great sense of humour and eye for the minutiae of family life.
The Road of Bones is a different proposition altogether. It tells the story of Yuri, who, when the book opens is about 11 years old. Yuri lives in a provincial town, somewhere in the heart of an enormous country which is to all intents and purposes, Russia in the early post-revolutionary years.
Yuri is the narrator of his tale, and he starts off his story as a reasonably carefree, thoughtless young boy who cannot understand why his parents and grandmother are becoming more and more worried by the events unfolding around them and why they become gradually more and more withdrawn and fearful.
Things begin to get serious for Yuri when he is twelve, and his class teacher receives a diktat from the government explaining that all children in Yuri’s year must now finish school and go to work.
Yuri is bewildered, and bewilderment rapidly turns to fright and disillusionment as he goes to work as a hod carrier on a building site. Speaking out about the shoddy tools and poor working conditions one day, shocked into it by the senseless death of his best friend, Yuri is forced to go on the run, and eventually finds himself in a work camp in what we, the reader, would know as Siberia.
Fine never mentions the name of the country, but the title: ‘The Road of Bones’, is almost certainly a reference to the road in the far east of Russia, where at this time in Russian history and for many years afterwards, millions of Russians died in horrific circumstances and conditions. I think Fine deliberately doesn’t peg the country of Yuri’s birth as Russia, because this leaves room for us to understand that this could be any country where events like this are commonplace, China is an example that springs to mind.
This story is definitely one for teenagers. It is brutal and harsh and affecting and we are spared none of the details of Yuri’s suffering or the senselessness of what goes on. It is a very powerful, bleak book, that offers no neat answers and which lays bare the terrible things that happen when effectively a country goes to war with itself, and the rules of combat and who the enemy actually are, are always changing.