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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

In fear of Nazi reprisals, the parents of a six-year-old boy send the youngster to a distant village. The parents lose touch with the man who had placed the child in the village, and when the boy’s foster mother dies, the young boy, left on his own, begins a series of travels from village to village. Considered to be either a Jew or a Roma (Gypsy) because of his dark hair and olive skin, the boy is treated horribly by the brutal and ignorant peasants he meets in his travels.

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The young boy first lives in the hut of Marta, a disabled and superstitious old woman. When she dies of natural causes, the boy accidentally burns down her house. He is saved from villagers, who want to kill him, by Olga, a woman called “the Wise” for her knowledge of folk medicine. After being tossed into the river by the villagers and carried downstream on an inflated catfish bladder, the young boy lives with a miller and his wife, and witnesses a scene of unspeakable brutality. Jealous of a young farmhand’s attraction to his wife, the miller gouges out his eyes with a spoon. The boy runs away and finds refuge with Lekh, who traps and sells birds, and who is in love with Ludmila. When villagers kill Ludmila, Lekh is heartbroken, and the young boy is forced to flee again.

The boy next stays with a carpenter and his wife who are afraid that the boy’s black hair will attract lightning to their farm. Whenever there is as storm, the carpenter drags the boy out to a field and chains him to a heavy harness. When the carpenter threatens to kill him, the boy leads him to an abandoned bunker and pushes him into a sea of rats. Next, the young boy stays with a blacksmith who is helping the partisans; when the blacksmith is killed, the boy is turned over to German soldiers, but the one charged with his execution lets him escape into the woods. The young boy finds a horse with a broken leg and returns it to a farmer, who briefly shelters the boy, but he is forced to escape again when he witnesses a murder at a wedding celebration.

The terror is unrelenting. The boy is now staying with a giant farmer and first witnesses the trains carrying Jews to the death camps. A Jewish girl is found along the tracks. She is kept at the house next door, and the boy witnesses her gang rape and murder. When Germans search the village for more Jews, he flees, but is captured and given to an old priest, who delivers him to Garbos, a sadistic farmer with a huge and vicious dog named Judas. Garbos beats the boy daily and then hangs him from two hooks over Judas, hoping that he will fall and be killed by the dog. Garbos is afraid of killing the boy himself, for religious reasons. Meanwhile, the boy had been taking religious instruction from the old priest, but one day, as an acolyte, he trips and drops the missal during a service. The enraged congregation throws the boy into a large manure pit. At this point, the boy loses his voice.

The boy escapes again and lives with another cruel farmer named Makar and his family. The daughter, Ewka, initiates the boy into sex—what he thought was love. He witnesses Makar forcing the girl into sexual acts with her brother and a goat, and loses his love for Ewka. He escapes on skates he had made, but a gang of boys captures him and throws him into a hole in the frozen river. He is saved by a woman named Labina, but she dies. The eastern front of the war is pushing closer, and the boy witnesses another gruesome scene. A band of Kalmuks—mostly Soviet deserters aligned with the Germans—takes over a village and wantonly rapes and slaughters its inhabitants. The boy’s first moment of stability comes when the advancing Soviet army captures and executes the Kalmuks and adopts the boy. He becomes a kind of mascot to Gavrila, the political officer of the regiment, and Mitka, a crack sniper....

(The entire section contains 1541 words.)

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