The Endless Steppe

The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig is our second read aloud book project. I am reading this one, a recommendation by Cressida Cowell, to my younger son, the older one feverishly reading the first book in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust.

This book was read aloud to me by my teacher when I was about 10 years old. It’s about Esther Rudomin, who was transported from Poland to a labour camp in Siberia by the Russian regime in 1941, along with her family, for being “capitalists”. Esther’s story really resonated because she was 10 years old just like me, but she went through hardships and trials that were unimaginable to a little girl growing up, as I was, in comfortable peacetime London. Books read aloud to you by an adult live with you all your life, as this book has with me.

Cowell on The Endless Steppe | The Guardian

My younger son, a big fan of Cowell’s The Wizards of Once and currently waiting for the final book of the series, is also 10 years old, the same age when this book was read to Cowell and roughly the same age as Esther, the girl who tells the story of her family’s deportation to Siberia. So I thought it might be a good moment to try this book. If a pandemic has any advantages then reading together should be one. Besides, we enjoyed reading Northern Lights so much that I wanted to repeat the experience. Of course, breaking the news of a newreading project doesn’t go without a good dose of ridicule for Baba’s accent which makes itself particularly noticeable at words such as ‘awe’, a torture for anyone with traces of German and Persian working in the background. Thankfully, Esther Hautzig uses ‘awe’ a lot less frequently than Philip Pullman.

This reading has been quite an experience so far. There was a moment my son wasn’t sure where the story was going, but has since shown a deep interest in what is happening to a little girl his age. He wanted to look up her life, as he thought she deserved recognition for her achievement. He noted with surprise and wide eyes that Esther was born in the same month as he, that she was his age when she lost her home and that she died in the year he was born.

(Later, I was to use old newspapers, writing between the lines.)

The Endless Steppe, p. 114.

The reading has so far given us opportunity to talk about surviving hardship as a child and to look at our lives from different angles. He didn’t think that he could survive a six week train journey into the unknown. He wanted to know how big a daily ration of 30 grams of bread was and couldn’t believe it when we weighed various food items. When we found out that Esther had to write between the printed lines of old newspapers as a substitute for notebooks, he thought she was brilliant.

But we have also had opportunities to exchange our life stories. I have told him about people I have lost under similar circumstances, brothers who froze to death in blizzards attempting to save their lives. School friends who left as soldiers and never returned. Or living with food rations and how it feels to hear the sound of warplanes and wondering where they might unload their bombs.

Esther’s story is not one of loss only. It is about hope, joy and being a wondering and curious child under the harshest of circumstances. Hautzig’s writing makes you want to go through hardship if only to view the world through her eyes.

We are reading 40 pages a day and look forward to what the next days bring.