Remembering Day

Today was once my Uncle August’s birthday. ‘cept he died and stopped counting birthdays. My mom says he came home (Kreuzberg, East Prussia) to visit on his 21st birthday – November 11, 1943 – and disappeared soon after – missing in action for Hitler’s lost cause.  I don’t know where he’s buried. Somewhere on the Eastern front, I suppose. Thanks to the internet - his name exists - even if his body was never found. Check here for the stats on his birth and death.  His name is listed at a Russian memorial site called Sologubovka - near St. Petersburg. 

I’m baking a Streuselkuchen (crumb cake) today – in August’s memory. 

My friend, Sara, has just published a book, Jimmy Muir from Trois Rivieresabout another young man's war death. He was a fighter pilot  – and was once her mother’s boyfriend. This is a poignant, sad, love story and a well-researched tribute to a young man who was fighting other young men – like my Uncle August.  Jimmy’s buried in Belgium, far from his home. 

Twenty-something and dead. Lives unlived.  I’d like to think that if both had lived, they might have become friends here in Canada where people could start over.

Marsha Skrypuch tagged me in a post and here's my response to her questions about the
Next Big Thing I'm working on.  Check out her blog for her next project. That woman is
amazing. PLUS - she has links to other authors' works-in-progress that sound very interesting!

What is the working title of your book?
Morton Magic

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A twelve-year-old girl goes camping with her boring family and has a
ghostly adventure.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
There’s a place on Lake Winnipeg, near Gimli, that our family liked to visit called Camp Morton.  Back in the 1930s it was a children’s camp and some of the original buildings still stand. So all I had to do was use my imagination, like the protagonist of the story, and the ghost was ready and willing to share. I’m not sure if it works, (my writer insecurity is on high), but I did have a lot of fun imagining this ghostly tale.

What genre does your book fall under?
Middle grade contemporary mystery

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Tough question.  I see so few movies.  The protagonist is the opposite of Hermione (Emma Watson) - and that’s the only kids’ movie I can recall.  A female version of Ron Weasely (Rupert Grint) might work.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Is there no third choice? I’m hoping for a publisher – but am not trying the agent route.

What other books would you compare to within your genre?
I’m thinking maybe Barrie Summy’s I So Don’t Do series. I got to know Barrie when I was a member of the Class of 2k8 – an online marketing group that I had to drop out of when my book was delayed. I read all Barrie’s books. She’s a very funny writer. Light-hearted mystery.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write this story because I’d written The Kulak’s Daughter about something that happened in the 1930s in another part of the world, and I was fascinated with the idea of children living here – attending a camp that wasn’t a gulag (labour camp) – and the idea grew from there. Also, my own children (now young adults) inspired the story. Childhood is so fleeting and the story is about how dangerous it can be to hold onto the past.

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?
This story is Made-in-Manitoba. There’s much to explore right here.

I’ve just finished a re-write of  Morton Magic from a third-person, to a first-person story. There have definitely been some challenges in doing this, because I have to limit everything to the protagonist’s point of view. No room for an omniscient narrator. I hope it works. Now I’m going to review the story again with a copy of Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer as my guide. I find that book very helpful, because plot is my weak spot.

After this mystery-break, I’m looking forward to applying The Plot Whisperer to my East Prussian Princess – the sequel to The Kulak’s Daughter.  It’s a story very dear to me because it’s fictionalizes my mother’s life.  Morton Magic was just a way to procrastinate.

Thanks again, Marsha, for asking!

Thursday was an almost-blue-moon night. I was at a soccer game on the outskirts of town and got to watch the lunar rock slowly change from a pale white to a shiny silver. The more the sun faded, the brighter the moon became. It was quite the show.

In between the moon and sun there was me and the dog watching a soccer final.   (Maybe this isn’t quite true. The dog was more into sniffing than watching  And I don’t want to know about those bones I heard him crunching.)  As the sun set in glorious prairie fashion, a swarm of Canada geese, who’d been feasting in a nearby field of recently cut wheat,  rose up into the pink and purple sky.  It was all quite soul-stirring.  Makes me think of this great prairie song.

Throughout all this, of course, is the soccer game. The green team against the blue team, and I guess in the end, on the eve of a blue moon, the blue team had the advantage.

Prairie skies are special places - add a blue moon and it’s quite surreal.
I hear the next blue moon won’t happen until July, 2015. I plan to attend.

The Forty Rules of LoveThe Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a gift - not sure I would have picked it up on my own. However, I did enjoy it very much. There was a touch of Marilyn French in there - one of my all time favorite authors.

It's a spiritual book. I found myself copying out the forty rules as a sort of life-guide. It's not meant to be a fast read. Highly recommended.  I'll have to read her other work, too.

View all my reviews

Happy 145, Canada!

Happy 145th birthday, Canada. How grateful I am for the gift of being Canadian - a gift that my parents gave to me. I was born within the first year of their arrival in this country - back in the fifties.  They were newlyweds - both in their mid 30s - both homeless and grateful for the new opportunities that Canada offered. My little parents - each only about five feet tall - were the proudest Canadians around. They loved everything about this country. The freedom, Trudeau's multi-culturalism, the lakes, the fishing, the mountains, the distances,  and the wonderful friends and neighbours they made along the way.

Canada is my home because my parents chose to move and start their new family here. They never took its gracious compassion to the homeless for granted. I hope Canada continues to be a refuge for the homeless - a place with room for families to grow.

I saw the EuroCup Final on TV this afternoon. My kids didn't care to watch because Germany had been eliminated. On the one hand, I think my dad would be proud of that German gene in his grandkids, but on the other hand, he'd have happily watched Spain beat Italy in Kyiv.  A soccer match is so much better than war.  
I've finally managed to plough through Andreas Kossert's book, Kalte Heimat. This book is a companion to his other book, Damals in Ostpreussen. The books have only whetted my appetite to learn more about this place. I want to go there. In fact, I'm thinking that retracing the steps of my mom's life would be a great retirement project. The towns of my mother's youth have all been renamed - whether in the former Soviet Union or in the former East Prussia. No wonder her new home here in Canada became so important to her. And me - I just wanted to be a plain little Canadian girl. I was so resentful of my parents' hidden past. I wanted grandparents to visit and English spoken at home. But now I'm starting to get it and to appreciate who my parents were, and therefore, to understand more of who I am.

Interesting memoir

The Remains of War: Surviving the Other Concentration Camps of World War IIThe Remains of War: Surviving the Other Concentration Camps of World War II by G. Pauline Kok-Schurgers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a real page turner. It's a memoir of a nine-year-old Dutch girl's survival during WWII in Sumatra, Indonesia. I had no idea that Dutch civilians lost their freedom over there. But then, I had no idea that the Dutch even had their people in Sumatra. The book is published by iUniverse and is very well written.

For me, even more interesting than the historical setting, is the psychological tension between mother and daughter. What's needed is a follow-up. How did those horrible years affect the children as they became adults?

A memoir doesn't get better than this. Highly recommended. Here's a youtube clip.

View all my reviews

Larry Warwaruk's Bone Coulee

Couple of days ago, I spent close to six hours in a hospital waiting room while my daughter had all four of her wisdom teeth pulled out. It was some great, mostly uninterrupted, reading time for me. (Not so great, for my daughter.)

I got to finish up with Larry Warwaruk's novel Bone Coulee. The book's been nominated for a Saskatchewan Fiction Award. He received the same award back in 1998 with Ukrainian Wedding.

I guess I'm prejudiced to like this book because I lived in Saskatchewan during the 1980s (two of my kids were born there) and I love the place. Didn't start out that way, though. I went there prepared to hate it. But my narrow mind was expanded by that glorious sky, vast fields, and the open-hearted people. Saskatchewan's license plates read, "Land of the Living Skies." It really is a magical place.

But Saskatchewan, like other Canadian places, has a dark past which still muddies the present.
After all, the prairies weren't empty when the Europeans arrived.

Warwaruk's book plays with Saskatchewan's assets: the people, the landscape, the history, even the politics. Reading his book made me want to jump into a car and drive out to the prairie to appreciate the quickly disappearing past.

The buffalo, the farming hamlets, and the grain elevators are all gone. Like the quilts in the book, Warwaruk pieces together parts of the past and creates story. And, in spite of dark moments, he offers healing and hope for the future.

My favorite scene happens right in the middle on page 116.

Angela wakes to the sound of a siren. At first she thinks there must be a fire somewhere. She hurries out of bed to join her mother, who's already at the front room window. It's a fire truck. Sid Rigley drives, holding a megaphone out the side window.

"Get out of bed, Esther! Pancake breakfast in the Lion's Den beer gardens."

"He wakes up the town?" Roseanna says.

The siren sounds a second time.

"How about you people?" Sid's voice blares from the megaphone. "Pancake breakfast! Sausage! Eggs! Hash browns! We've even got Kwok Ming at the grill."

Warwaruk's novel captures that small town feeling. It's all there - the First Nations, the East Europeans, the Chinese restaurant. Everyone trying in their own way to survive. Recommended reading for all prairie folk - and those who wish they were.


My grandfather was considered a class one, “counter-revolutionary” kulak. In 1930, he was arrested and his family forced to leave his 17 hectare farm so that it could become part of a collective – or – kolkchoz. Good bye, kulak.

Propaganda poster

(image from /

By the spring of 1931 – when his exiled children returned, motherless, from Siberia – his windmill was gone and strangers lived in the family house. When I visited the area in 2004, an old local woman told me that she remembered the dismantling of the windmill. The wood was used to build the new collective manager’s office. Farming became a complicated bureaucracy - it was all about the number crunching.

First class kulaks were not invited to work on the collectives. But all the others were pressured into joining. Workers ( proletariats) from the city factories were even sent out into the countryside to apply pressure tactics to 'encourage' them. Collective workers were called kolkchozniks (a Russian, not Ukrainian word). No one was happy.

Food production fell, while demand increased. This was the setting that led to the horrific Holodomor – death by starvation – in 1932/33. Then in 1933 the rules changed so that the workers could actually share in the profit of a collective. Before this, there had been no incentive to work.

As I try to learn more about life on a kolkchoz – I’m now aware that there’s a huge difference between the early collectives, and the later ones. But, the collective way of farming was never as successful as the western world's farms.

My mother and family lived through the confusing early years (1929 – 1933) where that chaos cost many lives and much suffering. Later, by the spring of 1933, the mass deportations and arrests stopped. By then, my mom was out of the country. My grandfather, however, stayed behind and was eventually a victim of the insanity of the Great Terror (1937/8).

Another five years go by, and the Germans invade. The collective workers are eager to switch back to the private farming of the pre-First Five Year Plan. They see the Nazis as an improvement to Stalin. While the Germans do announce in March of 1942 that collective farming will end, and that the land will be re-distributed – this privilege is given only to ethnic Germans. Food that is grown and harvested by the Ukrainian women is confiscated to feed the German soldiers.

One of these soldiers might have been my father – a German from Schleswig-Holstein – who is sent to the Eastern front in 1944. Of course, he had no idea back then, that he would eventually marry a daughter of a kulak. He was married to someone else then, but I’m getting way off track.

Back to the collective farms. The first ones were formed as early as 1919, and became the norm during the dekulakization project after 1929. Today, in 2012, some of them are still around- lasting longer than the Soviet regime. From what I gather, while many collectives went bankrupt after the government stopped paying wages, and providing supplies – others have continued – with slight changes.

It’s all rather confusing. Perhaps things will end up like here in North America with big business taking over. However, I did read that family-sized gardens contribute a lot to the post-Soviet dinner tables. The kulak spirit lives on.

Yes, I'm back in the world of 1931, trying to imagine and re-create my mother's lost childhood.

More WWII victims

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book begins with "... and the light was so white that it made my eyes ache." This story makes my heart ache. At times I had to put it aside because of its intensity. The author shines a harsh light on more victims of the Nazi regime and makes me squirm with discomfort. Compelling read. Companion novel to Stolen Child. Both books should be read by anyone studying WWII because it wasn't only Jewish children who suffered. That war was beyond awful. Kudos to Marsh Skrypuch for remembering the OST Arbeiter children.

Exploring East Prussia

If you’ve browsed through my blog, you might know that I’ve been exploring my mom’s life (1919-2011). My first book, The Kulak’s Daughter, was set in a part of the former Soviet Union known as Volhynia. This area is now part of the independent country called Ukraine.

File:Weimar Republic 1930.svg I’ve been working on, and revising, a sequel to that book. It’s also set in a part of the world that exists only in history books and fading memories. This is a place called East Prussia. When my mom left the Soviet Union as a thirteen-year-old orphan, she was adopted by extended family who were farmers in East Prussia near the city of Königsberg. Today, Königsberg is part of Russia and known as Kaliningrad.

It’s a confusing part of the world, and the 1920s/30s/ and 40s were confusing times. I’m a slow learner, but I’m gradually getting an idea of what life was like. The one thing that did stay the same was the people. Teenage emotions, human relationships, and ambitions have remained constant throughout time. So this will be at the core of my writing, even amidst the chaos of eastern Europe in the 20th century.

If you look at this map (Creative Commons, free download) - you can see that East Prussia is separated from the rest of Germany. Poland divides the two parts of Germany. This is why Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. This Weimar Republic - created after WWI - is the predecessor of the fatal Third Reich.

In this brewing kettle of trouble, my orphaned kulak mother spent her confusing teenaged years.

Pet Peeve

There's a reason annoying peeves are called PET peeves. My dear, sweet, soft, seventeen-year-old back kitty, called August, has the habit of crying like a baby beside my bed at about six every morning. Now this works as a great alarm clock on working days, but I like to sleep until maybe eight on the weekends. Dear kitty has no concept of weekends and she doesn't let up her irritating cry. I have gotten better at ignoring her - but only to a certain point. It's not like the poor thing is starving. She has access to her dry food anytime.

Recently, I came up from the basement to find her meowing at my bed when I wasn't even in it. So I'm thinking she just meows at my bed whenever life gets to her. I've never been the parent to such an old cat. When I was a child, my pet cats had short lives. They roamed the neighbourhood at night and inevitably got lost, beat up in cat fights, or run-over.

Getting up early on weekends isn't so bad, though. It gives me more time. Who doesn't appreciate a long weekend?

Real life stories

I've just finished reading another German YA novel. This one, again by Gudrun Pausewang, was first published in 1978. Auf Einem Langen Weg has not been translated to English (as far as I can tell.)
The book did become a German TV mini-series and was re-issued in 1996 with an image from the TV series as the new cover. It's the story of two young boys, separated from their family because of the chaos created when the German civilians are fleeing the advancing Soviet army.

I grew up hearing a variation of this story. My German community here in Winnipeg was mostly made up of WW II refugees.

The book reminds me a lot of the novel by Ian Serraillier, Escape from Warsaw (original title: The Silver Sword.) which became a British TV mini-series.

I asked a German contact whether books like Pausewang's are part of the German school curriculum. He said, no. It's also too bad that the children of German families in Canada have very little access to these books. It's their history, after all.

But I'm so grateful to the German schoolteacher, Gudrun Pausewang, who became the voice of these children's stories.

Book ending

I should mention that my publisher, Blooming Tree Press - down in Austin, Texas - has ceased to exist. This means of course, that my book - The Kulak's Daughter - is no longer available.

Please contact me directly, if you'd like a copy.

And if you're interested in a reading about a frustrating publishing experience, check out this blog post by Lori Ann Stephens, a fellow Blooming Tree author.

Time to move on. I must focus on getting my sequel published. I also plan on releasing an e-book version of The Kulak's Daughter some time in the future. Watch here for details.

The Silence of Trees

Just finished reading Valya Dudycz Lupescu's book, The Silence of the Trees. I enjoyed it - but thought the first half was a lot better than the last half. In fact, I wanted to just hurry up and finish it, although, I knew where it was going and there didn't seem to be a point to finishing it. (That sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?) I hate saying negative things like that out loud. Forgive me. Overall I do recommend reading the book.

The writing was beautiful and the story - about the atrocities at the end of the war - tragic and important. The layers of Ukrainian myth and folklore gave the whole piece an other-worldly quality which was quite enchanting.

One of the pleasures of owning books is being able to mark favorite passages. Here's mine from page 90:

"What do you know of it? Nothing. You know nothing of what I lost. Nothing." I pounded my fist on the table. "For all your schooling, you have not learned about life. You can't learn history from just a few books. History lives in the people who were there, not in numbers. Not in names of battles ..."

All alone

It's one of those all too rare afternoons. I'm home alone. What to do? I light a candle. Then answer the phone. Yes, I tell my overly-health conscious university-going son. I'll marinate those chicken breasts for you. Then I sneak myself a glass of wine - in the best house glass. Right. I don't have to sneak. Only the black cat - who's too old to see properly - and the golden dog - who doesn't care - can see what I'm doing.

The phone rings again. Teenage daughter at her weekend job. She forgot her cellphone. Could I drop it off when I walk the canine? Sure. Then I wait. Will the husband come home, saying he forgot his wallet? I listen for the sound of wheels in the snowy driveway. But the peace of silence stays on.

And then I walk around the house and think. Things aren't so bad, are they? I have a house, warm with twenty-some years of memories. I've finally got myself that new couch I promised to get when my first book came out. I have books - okay, just one of mine - but shelves and shelves and shelves of wonderful books that I've spent countless hours reading. I have a sweet little laptop which lets me access the whole internet for way more time than I should.

But this time alone is too precious to share with my laptop. I stare at the little candle - my fireplace substitute - and I think. Things aren't so bad. Things really aren't so bad.

And then I marinate the chicken, fold some laundry, sweep the floor, and pile on the gear to face a prairie January walk with the dog to drop off the cellphone.

Marie Halun Bloch

I recently discovered the author Marie Halun Bloch. Several of her books focus on 20th century Ukrainian issues, which was what attracted me to her work. Bloch was born in Ukraine in 1910 - making her a bit older than my mom. She immigrated to the States in 1914 - so that would be before the Bolshevik Revolution. Very good timing on her parents' part. Bloch died in 1998.

I managed to track down two of her books for young people. The Two Worlds of Damyan (published by Atheneum in 1966) tells the story of a young student living in Kiev who uses the Dniepro River to practice swimming. In his dreams, he's swimming at the Olympics against the Americans. Considering this was written in '66 - this Soviet competition against the Americans would be strong.

The two worlds mentioned in the title are the Soviet world and the private family lives. In the Soviet world there is no religion and no Ukraine. In the private family world, they celebrate Christmas and also the dream of Ukrainian independence.

In Displaced Person (William Morrow, 1978) Bloch explores the confusion of a young boy - a Ukrainian refugee. He, along with the Ost workers - young people forced into labour by the Nazis - don't want to return to the Soviet homeland. The climax occurs when the Soviets and the Americans share and divide the many war refugees from eastern Europe. At one point, Bloch refers to the forced repatriation and massacre at Lienz, Austria in May of 1945.

It's an important book because it tells a true story about the casualties of war that has received little attention. Here's a quote:

"It would appear ever so neat and orderly - for only orderly wars are fought in history books - with dates fore and aft to box them nicely in. But everyone who had been there would know it all for a lie. Because the truth was anarchy and chaos, friends where enemies should be and enemies among one's own..." (page 103)

My only question is: why did it take me until 2012 to read these books? I hope they get reprinted, because interest in these issues is continuing to grow.

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