Middle Grade Book Review: Misha Alexandrov by Jan Karol Tanaka – 4.5 stars

Misha Alexandrov, by Jan Karol Tanaka, is the story of a mixed-race (Russian and Aleut) 10 year-old boy who migrates to California’s north coast in the early 1800s as part of a boat crew of working men. Misha lost his mother prior to embarking on the trip with his father and was then orphaned in Alaska before arriving in California. He is being cared for, somewhat reluctantly, by a member of the crew (Dmitri) who promised his father he would look after him.

Misha Alexandrov

When Misha’s ship arrives on the coast of California, he is immediately overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of the location and longs for the opportunity to make a new home for himself. Nonetheless, the community he arrives in is a working colony and he has no skills that can benefit the well-being of the town. Moreover, he is viewed with suspicion by the inhabitants of the colony who see him as ‘bad luck’ due to the loss of both of his parents. His status as mixed-race (a ‘half-breed’) also hinders his ability to assimilate into the community.

Luckily for Misha, Dmitri is a man of his word and does everything he can to protect and promote him. Misha also becomes the beloved friend of a Hawaiian cook and local Indian boy who fight to help him in his quest. Dmitri begins to train Misha in the carpentry trade and his hopes that he will be able to become a contributing member of society rise. Unfortunately, the foreman (Tarasov) of the local company is both a tyrant and a racist and threatens to send Misha home alone on the next ship if he cannot prove his value.

Through a combination of ingenuity, grit and the love of his new friends, Misha fights to build a new home and be allowed to stay in California. We watch his struggle with fear, impulsivity and the injustice of others as he grows and matures in his new environment. You’ll find yourself rooting hard for Misha to succeed and ‘feeling all the feels’ for his friends and supporters as they take on Tarasov and the hurdles that Misha must face to stay with them.

Tanaka has written a beautifully quiet book that delivers a heartwarming coming of age story. Her prose is gorgeous and her characters are both believable and endearing. There is plenty of action and humor within these pages but the tone of the book is mostly reflective and hopeful. Tanaka’s style is reminiscent of Jean Craighead George (Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain) or Scott O’Dell (Island of the Blue Dolphins) and readers will treasure this story in much the same way they do those.

Tanaka creates Misha’s story in such a way that readers will learn a lot from his experience without feeling preached or pandered to. Lessons about the history of California, the importance of love and friendship, identity and racism are delivered subtly and with a gentle hope. Misha is not depicted as a perfect character and even the motives of the story’s villain are explored in light of his own upbringing and struggles. The opportunity for tremendous encouragement and optimism exists within this story and young people will see themselves in Misha despite differences in time, place and circumstance. This is one of those timeless stories that is historical in nature but all too easily applied to the struggles we face today.

Both adults and young people alike will be touched by Tanaka’s writing. To get a copy for yourself and/or one to pass along to someone else who needs this message of determination and hope, click the link below:

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