The Winter Horses
From Philip Kerr, the New York Times bestselling author of the Bernie Gunther novels, comes a breathtaking journey of survival in the dark days of WWII in Ukraine, a country that remains tumultuous today. This inspiring tale captures the power of the human spirit and is perfect for fans of The Book Thief, Milkweed, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
It will soon be another cold winter in the Ukraine. But it's 1941, and things are different this year. Max, the devoted caretaker of an animal preserve, must learn to live with the Nazis who have overtaken this precious land. He must also learn to keep secrets—for there is a girl, Kalinka, who is hiding in the park.
Kalinka has lost her home, her family, her belongings—everything but her life. Still, she has gained one small, precious gift: a relationship with the rare wild and wily Przewalski's horses that wander the preserve. Aside from Max, these endangered animals are her only friends—until a Nazi campaign of extermination nearly wipes them out for good.
Now Kalinka must set out on a treacherous journey across the frozen forest to save the only two surviving horses—and herself.
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 9780385755436, 288pp.
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
In the note at the beginning of the novel, the author shares
that, while there is no real evidence that the heroes of
the story existed, “if there is one truth greater than all the
others, it is that there are times when history must take
second place to legend.” Do you agree? How would you
define legend? What are some other examples of legends
that overshadow history?
As the book opens, readers learn that the senior manager
of the State Steppe Nature Reserve of the Ukrainian Soviet
Socialist Republic has chosen to flee the reserve and urges
Max to do the same. Why do you think Max refuses to leave
the animals behind or to put them down? What do you think
you would do if you were forced to make a similar decision?
Throughout the story, both Kalinka and Max display extreme
perseverance. What drives them to persevere, and do they
persevere differently or similarly? What perseverance traits
do you possess? Are they more like Max’s or Kalinka’s?
After learning that the captain has given the horse Molnija
the new name Lightning, Max tells Grenzmann, “I can’t say I
hold with giving animals new names any more than I hold
with killing them for no good reason” (p. 39). In your opinion,
why does Max feel so compelled to speak out against the
actions of the soldiers? Do you think it’s wise of him to
do so? Why or why not?
Kalinka tells Max, “Tell me about yourself. How did you
come here? And when? And why? Please, Max. It’s been a
long time since anyone told me a story at bedtime” (p. 61).
What does her acknowledgment that much time has passed
since she’s had the luxury of a bedtime story tell us about
her experiences? What are your own memories of
When Kalinka tells Max about the tragic fate of her family,
we learn that a stranger helped save her life. Why do you
think the stranger chose to help Kalinka? Do you believe
that the actions of a single person can make a difference?
After criticizing him for accepting an invitation to dinner with
the German soldiers, Kalinka changes her attitude as she tells
Max, “You’ve achieved a great deal. Thanks to you risking your
life, there are two Przewalski’s horses still alive. Not to
mention me” (p. 97). In what ways does Kalinka understand
all that Max is risking for her and the horses? Do you find
her to be sufficiently grateful for his sacrifice?
Given what Kalinka shares about her life before she is forced
to flee, how aware of the political tension in her country do
you think she is? Do you think teens today are as aware of
the political climate in their own countries?
How does Taras, Max’s dog,
understand the loss of his master?
Though she has already lost
her family, why does the
knowledge of Max’s death
become a tipping point
Using the phrase, “This is a story
about . . . ,” supply five words
to describe The Winter Horses
and explain your choices.