The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 is the catalyst for a friendship that spans a lifetime in this wonderful middle grade historical fiction book.
Neighbors and not-friends Valentina and Oksana have one heart-wrenching reason to come together after the disaster: their fathers work in the Chernobyl plant and never come home again.
Oksana loses her father outright to the blast, and reels from the after-effects. Her mother, a narcissistic sycophant who tolerated her husband's abuse of Oksana as long as it meant he didn't turn on her, places her in the care of Valentina's mother. She absorbs too much radiation from gardening on the roof and has to go to a hospital.
Valentina's loving father is shipped to a hospital for "treatment," but as a reader, you know there's no "treatment" on Earth that can save her father's life. He's was too close to the explosion and has been doused with a fatal amount of radiation.
Valentina's mother sends both girls to live with her Jewish mother, in Leningrad. It's a last-ditch effort to get the girls out of the small town before the Russian authorities shut down all travel, and they only barely escape the quarantine.
On the face of it, the girls appear to have plenty of reasons to bond -- shared tragedy, shared reduced living conditions, shared stigma as refugees from the blast. But Oksana is secretly overflowing with jealousy of Valentina and her relationship with both her parents, and later, Valentina's Jewish grandmother.
It's not until Oksana's mother shows up to claim her, and take her home to a new, abusive boyfriend, that Oksana realizes just how much she loved Valentina and Valentina's grandmother. And she reaches out to them for help -- but if they help Oksana, they risk losing the little they have left to cling to.
My daughter and I loved this book, and cried buckets over it! It's a really human view of the Chernobyl disaster and how it impacted lives, albeit fictionally, in the days and decades after.
We highly recommend this read.