The adventures of a young girl who lives on a Count’s estate in early 20th century Imperial Russia would be compelling to many young readers, but when you add the fact that this girl’s family breeds Borzoi dogs, you have a winner. Lara’s Gift by Annemarie O’Brien is the story of Lara, a young girl who wants to prove herself worthy of following her father’s footsteps and managing the kennel for Count Vorontsov, a member of the nobility.
The opening pages of O’Brien’s story reminded me of Charlotte’s Web. The novel opens as Zarya, a Borzoi, is giving birth and just when Lara and her father think all of the puppies have made safe passage into the world, there’s one more. Of course, Lara asks her father if she can keep the runt. “I’ll take on more kennel chores to earn his keep,” she offers – sounding just like Fern. Of course, she does and Ryczar (Zar) becomes her favorite dog and the hero of this middle grade novel. Lara has all of the skills and knowledge to be the head of the kennel, except for one big strike against her. She is a girl living in early 20th century Russia and, over the course of the novel, she has a baby brother. Naturally, Lara’s parents prepare their daughter for life as a wife and mother, but Lara will not give up her dream of a life with the Borzoi.
There are lots of things I loved about this novel. Lara is a spirited heroine, the time period is fascinating, and the fact that the novel focuses as much on the relationship between father and daughter as it does on the Borzoi. There is also a frightening antagonist, actually more than one — the dangerous wolves that roam the vast estate. It’s the wolves that provide Lara and Zar a chance to prove their capabilities and their value to the estate. There are a couple of fights between the wolves and Zar which had my heart racing, but they are realistic and add to the texture of the story.
Recommend Lara’s Gift to fans of historical fiction and dog lovers.