Writer: Robert Dinsdale
Publishing House: Harper Collins
Date of Publication: February 13th 2014
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Once, all of the world was covered in forests. But, slowly, over the years, those forests were driven back – by people just like us. They chopped them down to make timber, and burned them to make farms. But this little corner of the world where we live is very special. Because half our country is covered in forests that have been chopped or cut back. The oaks in these forests are hundreds of years old. They’ve grown wizened and wise. And those forests have seen it all: the Russian, and Poland, and Germany, emperors and kings and too many wars. Those trees would tell some stories, if only they could speak!’’
In a city close to a dark forest in Belarus, a little boy is carrying a heavy burden. Without a father and with his beloved mother facing a critical illness, Alek is forced to remain in the care of his papa, his mother’s father, a man formidable, terrifying and seemingly wise. His grandfather is troubled and troubling but Alek has given a promise to his mama and cannot take it back. He has to face the dark forest, the hungry trees, the shadows of the past. Above all, he has to protect his sanity from a man who was treated unjustly by forces darker than the thickest canopies of the threatening forest…
‘’The forests are alive, boy. They live and love and hate, just the same as you and me.’’
The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale is one of the most unique, beautiful, magical books I’ve ever read. Gingerbread is very different but no less haunting and powerful. Where The Toymakers is full of the magic of Christmas, Gingerbread is adorned with the darkness and mystery of the Slavic fairy tales and nature. The dark forest with the bloodthirsty trees and the carnivorous shadows becomes a metaphor for a man’s tortured soul and a boy’s agony to stay true to his vow while protecting the ones he loves from a wrath that is blind and unjust. Forest folklore, Belarusian history, Slavic culture, Baba Yaga, Ded Moroz, the spirits that reside in centuries-old trees…A painting of legends and traditions by a brilliant artist.
‘’Well, smiled the first wise man -for he had woven a trap of words, and caught at the soldier, If you would rather be in the woods than serving the Winter King, you are his enemy. So now you must be banished to the farthest east, to the world of Perpetual Winter, and there you must toil in your king’s service, in that great frozen city called Gulag.’’
Apart from the unseen world, though, there is a harsh reality that Alek must face. Gingerbread provides a realistic depiction of a person fighting cancer. It hurts so much because this is a young mother that won’t have the chance to see her wonderful, clever boy become a man. Dinsdale writes about an unbearably painful subject in a quiet, sensitive way and the result is extremely powerful. A boy is forced to grow up viciously fast, experiencing a strange, cruel world and a grandfather whose heart and soul have been haunted by the Soviet horrors.
History is never far away in this story and I am glad to finally meet a writer who refers to the partisans as the heroes they were. After the abominable In The Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas. Because let’s face it, that writer wanted the reader to feel sorry for the people who didn’t give a damn about the Holocaust, who ‘’ didn’t know’’. I am sorry, Nazi writer, get out! Dinsdale is a magnificent writer who writes with respect, perspective and above all, he is knowledgeable and objective. He doesn’t take his readers for uninformed fools. The way he has created the allusions to refer to the Soviet Era is outstanding, haunting and heartbreaking. The Winter King, the King in the West, the land of Perpetual Winter, the Iron Wall…
The last chapters of the novel are pure agony. I felt my mind spinning and my heart was pounding with horror. The ending is superb. Each character – Alek, papa, mama, Elenya, Mr. Navitski- deserves a book of their own. This is how Literature becomes an unforgettable experience.
‘’But other trees saw the work of the King in the West and were filled with joy. Because trees feed on dead things, and send their roots down to drink them up, and when the King in the West killed in the forests, some trees were tempted to feed on the murdered men. And those trees grow mighty and powerful, with branches made from dead men, and there in the forests, the trees that have drunk on the dead of the wars of winter – for those are the trees whose trunks have the faces of men. For that is their curse, to forever wear the features of the men they have eaten.’’