More than a retelling of Vassily’s story, Young Heroes is a memoir of Halberstadt’s family and the country where he was born — a loving and mournful account that’s also skeptical, surprising and often very funny ... confident, precisely drawn imagery that will make you remember what Halberstadt describes in his own unforgettable terms ... A thread that runs through Halberstadt’s book is the inheritance of trauma...another version of the historical record that gets inscribed into our genetic code. Those parts of the book are elegantly delineated, but it’s the unexpected specificity of Halberstadt’s observations that ultimately make this memoir as lush and moving as it is.
Halberstadt twitches aside the dismissive curtain we tend to drape over the older members of our families ... What he finds is startling but ought to be familiar in its own way to each of us ... As Halberstadt weaves his familial background out of several trips across Russia and Eastern Europe in a quest for information, a curious effect occurs. Time becomes less linear and seems to lie around us, piled in no particular order, like snow. The past is still present with us; nothing is truly left behind.
... he writes Vassily’s story as best he can, adding some background and filling the landscape with monsters of his own invention. We almost never hear from Vassily directly. What we get is an omniscient narrator’s third-person account of what Vassily did or thought (or may have done or thought). The sole direct confession—about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944—gets the same treatment, with no follow-up questions ... There is plenty of archival information ... But Alex does not go to the archives, has no clue about the time and place he dreams about, and does not ask Vassily any specific questions (from what we can tell) ... The unease the reader feels over...novelistic passages is made more acute by the obvious implausibility of some elements of the background ... When locating hell in countries with names, pasts, and flesh-and-blood inhabitants, writers—especially memoirists—are expected to set limits to their imagination.