Mitya, the protagonist of Katya Kazbek’s poignant, lyrical, heartbreaking debut novel Little Foxes Took Up Matches, was born in 1987. He’s a quiet child with few friends, who prefers to observe the goings on of those around him from the sidelines. He discovers that he enjoys, and even has a talent for, dressing up in his mother’s clothes and doing his makeup. He feels an immense barrier between himself and his family and doesn’t feel they truly witness or value him.
I was also born in 1987. I was also a quiet child with few friends who preferred to observe. I also rarely felt like I could relate to my family. I didn’t realize I wanted to wear “women’s” clothes or makeup until I was in high school, though, and there was another crucial difference between myself and this novel’s protagonist.
When Mitya is four, the Soviet Union collapses, and he and his family find themselves in a rapidly changing — frequently for the worse — Russia. His grandmother has a cabinet full of items with which she can bribe institutional gatekeepers. His father beats him upon discovering he is a “sissy.” His parents lose a series of successively lower-paying jobs and move the family into successively smaller apartments. There’s a run on the banks, and their country’s currency continues to lose value. His cousin returns from the military to share Mitya’s bed — the family couch in the living room — and eventually sexually assaults him. His best friend, a homeless man named Valerka who doesn’t judge his gender non-conformativity, is murdered.
When I was four, my parents divorced, and I moved from one middle-class Bay Area suburb to another. It’s strange the ways we identify with characters in literature; Mitya and I actually have little in common other than the year of our birth, but I couldn’t help thinking of him as a kindred spirit. It’s also a testament to how warmly, and with so much endearing detail, Kazbek characterizes Mitya and his worldview.
Because of the heartbreaking trauma by which he’s surrounded, it’s difficult to remember throughout Little Foxes that Mitya is a little boy. He isn’t precocious; his thought processes, his primary concerns, his naïveté are age appropriate. He discovers for the first time during the novel, for example, that authority figures cannot always be trusted.
At one point, around age ten, he tells Marina, a new friend, that he once had a dream in which he kissed Bon Jovi. It wasn’t true, but she was older, and into music, and he wanted to fit in. She asks — supportively and excitedly — if that means he is gay. Mitya is surprised and confused. He “had never thought to consider himself in such terms,” he thinks; not because he had any problem with homosexuality, but because he is only a child.
I don’t believe that I was “born trans.” I believe that I was a boy, then a young man, up until I chose to become a woman. Mitya is a boy. He sees himself as a boy and is referred to as one throughout the novel — except when he wears his mother’s make-up in secret and dresses up as “Devonchka,” a girl. He later names this persona Lena and even experiments with going out “full femme.” Despite the fact that it would create a clearer line of affinity I could draw between myself and this character, I appreciate that the word “transgender” doesn’t appear in the novel. It’s not clear whether Mitya sees himself that way. Or even whether he should.
The most enjoyable section of the book — a “coming of age” novel, sort of — is the mystery at the heart of it: Valerka’s murder. Mitya takes on another persona here: that of a boy detective, investigating both his friend’s death and his own place in the rapidly changing world he’s growing up to inhabit. Mitya’s eventual realization that, no matter who actually killed his friend, the system is at fault — that the political machinations that led to the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent crumbling of his family’s position in society and ability to survive are the actual culprits behind Valerka’s death — is a turning point in his development into … not a young adult, not yet. He isn’t necessarily a baby detective because he puts on the Sherlock Holmes cap. He isn’t necessarily a baby trans girl because he experiments with gender. He’s just a kid.
It’s also a love story, of sorts, and in this way is also dual-sided: he meets Zolotoy, a generous, kind, beautiful homeless boy. All of the homeless boys are generous and kind, it must be said. But Zolotoy is special, and Mitya experiences his first crush — at the same time that he finds himself falling in love with himself and his own boundlessness, his own potential, his own desirability.
The books that always hit me the hardest are the ones I keep thinking about long after I’m done reading them. I think about where Mitya — or Lena? — would be today, in their mid-30s. Still in Russia? Did they transition, like me, or is that a Western understanding of gender that doesn’t apply here? Could they live an authentic life in modern Moscow, or might they have left the country? What about their friend Marina, who emigrated to Russia from Ukraine? Where would she and her family be in 2022? In Putin’s orbit?
Part mystery, part fairy tale, part economic commentary, part exploration of the impact of the fall of the USSR, and all heart and spirit and earnestness, Little Foxes invites readers to fall in love with a child falling in love with himself and his friends and his own power and his own transformative potential amidst a backdrop of chaos, and even if you weren’t born in 1987, it will likely stick with you for a while.
Little Foxes Took Up Matches by Katya Kazbek is out now.