Black Bird, Blue Road by Sofiya Pasternack

The history of the Jewish Empire of Khazaria would die out completely if not for stories like Black Bird, Blue Road. In this historical fiction account, Sofiya Pasternack shares the story of Ziva and Pesha, twelve year old twins.

Stubborn, persistent, passionate, and observant, Ziva aspires to be a judge. Her brother, Pesha may not have the same fire, but he is brilliant in his own way. Ziva is convinced that with his inventive mind, Pesha will find a cure not only for the leprosy that afflicts him but for other diseases, as well. Selfless and kind, Pesha also has a gift for learning languages.

When it seems as if Pesha’s illness will not lift, Ziva vows to get Pesha to Byzantium so that he can see the best doctors for a cure. Even if she has to carry him, Ziva will not give up on her twin.

After stealing the family’s wagon and two horses, Ziva begins the journey to save her brother. Early on, she is hijacked by thieves, one of whom turns out to be half-human, half-sheyd: Almas. Ziva had always thought of sheydim as things that had existed more than a thousand years ago. Her mother had spoken of them as demons capable of “haunting nighttime places, waiting to harm people and trick them into making bad choices” (115). Because a sheyd’s job is to play tricks on people, Ziva struggles to trust Almas, even though he has saved her and Pesha from bandits. Despite the sheydim’s reputation for being spirits with an inclination for evil, Almas explains that “sheydim can be bad. Just like people can be bad. . . . We have some things in common with people, and some things in common with angels” (122-123).

Because Ziva unbinds Almas from a cursed existence, he vows to help her and Pesha as much as he can. Almas knows a city to the east, in the Blue Lands where the Angel of Death isn’t allowed within the city’s walls. Together, Ziva and Almas will take Pesha there.

Pasternack’s novel is an adventure story intermixed with Khazar legends. In its telling, Pasternack invites the reader to wonder along with Ziva, what risks we are willing to take for love. She also shares important lessons about judging others based on unfair personal biases and insists we can’t assume guilt based on someone’s past.

Finally, readers are encouraged to consider the value or worthiness of life. Almas tells Ziva: “Smart people aren’t the only ones who can do good! . . . Anyone can change the world. Not just the brilliant people. . . . Being smart is not the best thing someone can be. Smart people aren’t better than everyone else. Your life is worth living . . . . Death doesn’t work on trades” (264).

  • Posted by Donna

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