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the defender

6 may 2023

The Defender wouldn't really fly as a children's-book idea in the 2020s. Not because it's about a Siberian traditional healer who befriends wild rams, though such books have never been thick on the ground. But simply because children are tangential to the book.

Our hero is Turgen, quite an old man. Turgen is a widower who lives alone way up in a yurt and looks after said rams, a hobby that does not endear him to the folk of the valley below. About the only people who can stand to be around Turgen are a widow named Marfa and her two children Tim and Aksa.

You'd expect Tim and Aksa, who start the story five and two years old, to grow into its protagonists. But although they cheer on the central romance, it is really the love story of Turgen and Marfa. This is not exactly the stuff of date movies, however. Marfa needs some support, she doesn't mind Turgen, he's good with kids, he's good with rams. Theirs becomes a marriage of something more than convenience and a whole lot less than passion. In the process, they become reconciled to their community, which was never as antagonistic toward old Turgen as seemed the case.

The Defender is a nice story. There's lots of animal detail. Hunters are the villains of the piece, though there is no fleshed-out evil character, just a generalized threat. A lamb does fall off a cliff at one point. But Turgen retrieves the lamb and nurses it back to health, re-equipping it to go back to the wild.

Nicholas Kalashnikoff, Google tells me, was a White Russian officer who lived the last quarter-century of his life in American exile. He was actually from Siberia, and then obliged to return there as an exile during the Tsarist period. Not wanting to return for a third stint, or worse, he opted for the U.S. and a career as a writer for both children and adults. Assuming he learned English as an adult – likely, unless he had an English-speaking nanny as Vladimir Nabokov did, or lucked into some excellent ESL classes in 1890s Siberia – his achievement as a writer in his adopted language is considerable.

Kalashnikoff, Nicholas. The Defender. Illustrated by Claire and George Louden, Jr. New York: Scribner, 1951.