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I am pleased to share the cover of my debut upper middle grade novel, Lara’s Gift.

Cover of LARA’S GIFT, Knopf, 2013

Lara’s Gift is a Lassie-meets-Dr. Zhivago story set in Imperial Russia about a fourteen-year-old girl named Lara who dreams of breeding borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar in the tradition of her ancestors. When her papa announces that her newborn brother will inherit the family honor of becoming the next kennel steward, Lara must learn to trust her Gift to not only fulfill her dream, but to save her favorite borzoi, Zar, from a pack of hungry wolves.

The seed for this story first took root in 1989 just after I graduated from business school and landed a job in Moscow with a Soviet company hoping to do business in America. Eager to have a dog in my life, I began my search for a puppy and decided on a borzoi, also called the dog of Russian nobility. My thought was, When in Rome, do as the Romans.

Author, Moscow, 1989

It never dawned on me how hard it would be to find a borzoi puppy and through my search I began to fully understand the ramifications of Russian history. Because borzoi were a symbol of the Tsar, they, too, became an enemy of the state and were not spared by the Bolsheviks during the Revolution of 1917. Fortunately, there were some brave Russians who loved borzoi so much, they risked their lives to save as many dogs as they could.

In 1985, when Gorbachev became the Soviet premier of the USSR, his policies of perestroika and glasnost opened his country’s once closed doors and made it easier for borzoi breeders, like Ursula Trueb, of Switzerland to send borzoi back into Russia to expand the gene pool and resurrect the breed. Thanks to Ursula Trueb’s selfless efforts I eventually found Dasha whose half-Russian-half-Swiss pedigree still intrigues me in terms of what it represents historically.

Dasha, Moscow, 1989

My seed for Lara’s story began to sprout when I attended a coursing event with Dasha and met Bonnie Dalzell, an American Kennel Club judge and borzoi breeder. She gave me a copy of Dmitri Walzoff’s translation of The Perchino Hunt which describes the splendor and grandeur of the great Russian wolf hunt and plants us into a world that no longer exists today.

The Perchino Hunt at the Grand Duke Nicolai’s Country Estate, early 1900s, Russia

Bonnie also gave me a copy of Observations on Borzoi written by Joseph Brown Thomas about his travels to Russia in 1903 in search of the perfect borzoi to incorporate into his breeding program at Valley Farm Kennel. In his letters he wrote that the best breeding borzoi came from the Kennels belonging to the Tsar, the Grand Duke Nicolai (Perchino), and Count Vorontsov (Woronzova). The dogs Thomas brought back from the Perchino and Woronzova Kennels became the foundation for many of the borzoi that exist today in America. When I made the connection between the family name of Count Vorontsov with that of Professor Alexander Woronzoff of Smith College, that’s when my sprout of a seed formed a bud. The family names of Vorontsov and Woronzoff were one in the same!

Woronzova Kennel, Tambov region, Russia, early 1900s

When Professor Woronzoff confirmed that his great-great-great uncle Artemii Vorontsov did indeed breed borzoi, I immediately had a million questions for Professor Woronzoff. But it was the questions he couldn’t answer and all of the what-ifs that came flooding into my mind that truly inspired Lara’s story that eventually blossomed into Lara’s Gift.

Dasha and Lenin, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 1993

Dasha is no longer with me, but even back then I knew there was a story I wanted to write to honor all that she taught me through the many unlikely doors that opened up for me because of her. Lara’s Gift is a tribute to my memory of Dasha and my love of all borzoi—past and present.

Dasha, 1990

Lara’s Gift will be released by Knopf on October 8, 2013.