A Boy Is Not a Ghost

  • Review
By – December 27, 2021

Edeet Ravel’s new nov­el, A Boy Is Not a Ghost, is a sequel to A Boy Is Not a Bird (2019). Both books are based on the child­hood expe­ri­ences of Ravel’s ele­men­tary school teacher, Nahum Halpern, whose Jew­ish fam­i­ly was exiled to Siberia under Stalin’s rule dur­ing World War II. With nar­ra­tive skill and psy­cho­log­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ty, Rav­el con­tin­ues the sto­ry of Natt Sil­ver, a child trapped by his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stance who feels he has been trans­formed into a ghost of his true self. Her account of the emo­tion­al assaults inflict­ed on chil­dren dur­ing wartime is utter­ly com­pelling and real­is­tic, and Natt becomes an unfor­get­table char­ac­ter with all the dimen­sions of truth.

When the book begins, Natt is twelve years old. His father has been impris­oned in a Sovi­et gulag because of an invent­ed offense, a vic­tim of the irra­tional sys­tem used to main­tain author­i­tar­i­an con­trol. The rest of the nov­el involves Natt’s attempt to nego­ti­ate this sys­tem after he and his moth­er are also deport­ed to Siberia. While Natt may under­stand intel­lec­tu­al­ly the para­me­ters of this chaot­ic sys­tem, he is still a child, who has been forced to assume the role of an adult in car­ing for his moth­er. Clever and intro­spec­tive, but also ter­ri­fied and depressed, Natt is nev­er just a sym­bol of resilience. Read­ers will iden­ti­fy with his brave attempts to main­tain some equi­lib­ri­um, accept­ing help when it is offered and mourn­ing the loss of his pre­vi­ous life. As Nate astute­ly real­izes, If you don’t remem­ber, you real­ly are a ghost.”

The Sovi­et dic­ta­tor­ship is a sys­tem of lies and con­tra­dic­tions. At the same time that the Russ­ian peo­ple are fight­ing the Nazis, ensur­ing the ulti­mate sur­vival of Jew­ish fam­i­lies like Natt’s, every­one in their total­i­tar­i­an state is forced to play a role. Natt’s con­fronta­tions with anti­semitism have pre­pared him for this dis­so­nance; he pre­tends that his fel­low cit­i­zens’ anti­se­mit­ic insults are just lines recit­ed by actors. Some of the chap­ters are let­ters to his friend, Max, in which he eludes real­i­ty by describ­ing his cir­cum­stances in hap­py terms. All cor­re­spon­dence is actu­al­ly a code designed to avoid the cen­sors and inevitably con­tains iron­ic trib­utes to Stal­in and the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Ravel’s tran­si­tions between Natt’s suc­cess­ful use of sur­vival strate­gies and his inter­nal moments of despair help to devel­op Natt as a con­vinc­ing character.

Natt tries to pro­tect him­self from form­ing attach­ments, since he has suf­fered through so many sep­a­ra­tions. Yet he can­not become a ghost, since the core of his iden­ti­ty sur­vives. Love for his par­ents, and for par­ent sur­ro­gates who try to help him, pre­serve some nor­mal­i­ty through­out his strug­gles. His attach­ment to a friend, Olga, becomes con­flat­ed with an ear­li­er child­hood love. Every rela­tion­ship, even an ordi­nary crush, is evi­dence of resis­tance. Lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture, whether Amer­i­can movies, the poet­ry of Pushkin, or the nov­el Lit­tle Women, are also anchors for a sen­si­tive child under siege. Ravel’s com­plex por­trait of a child’s quest for whole­ness in a frag­ment­ed world is unforgettable.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry includes an author’s note and a detailed sec­tion on the his­tor­i­cal background.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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