Invisible Boy Review

Invisible Boy, shortlisted for a non-fiction Governor General Award this past year, caught my attention not because of the race issues … but because of the religious ones. Both share the limelight in this memoir.

I’m not black and won’t try to identify with Harrrison Mooney's race struggles, a black kid growing up with white parents in BC's Bible belt.  But, having been raised in a semi-fundamentalist environment (my father kept a healthy distance from the evangelicals), I was drawn to the Christian hypocrisy of Mooney’s growing-up years ... complicated by his insecurities of being an adopted child.

Mooney could never be sure of his acceptance into his adopted family’s faith community—a community where speaking in tongues was a sign of God’s grace. He could also never be sure of his white mother’s love.  Mooney could never be sure if being himself was enough. And so he, the adopted boy, had to adopt a false persona.

It was heartbreaking to read: “Mothers teach love and survival … But mine taught me how to survive without love.” (page 268).  

People who haven’t been exposed to Christian fundamentalism might not appreciate its power to exploit a child’s vulnerabilities.  A challenging, disturbing, but ultimately, uplifting and empowering book.  I hope Mooney's Christian white mother will read this and see him.

If Tables could Talk

December, 1953. This photo shows my extended family celebrating their first Christmas as newcomers to Canada. The women in the photo were born in Ukraine; my dad and Uncle #2 were born in Germany.

Dinner was around a maple table in a rented house in the Wolseley neighbourhood. Yes, there's the ubiquitous fowl … probably a turkey, but maybe a goose … centre stage. 

Because I write fiction, I won't identify these people (except my parents). They don't need to be directly attached to the stories I’ve created about them. Suffice it to say, they’ve inspired my writing. As a fiction writer I'm interested in creating stories with compelling character arcs but I strive to be accurate with the historical and physical setting.

Aunt #1: Far left.  A talented seamstress who would sew any dress a young girl could imagine.

Next, my mom. Three months pregnant with me in this photo. She’s wearing a home-knit red vest, that I might actually still own. 

Next to her, my father. Three years earlier he'd been released from a Soviet POW camp.

Aunt #2: Standing at the back, in the middle.  As my mom’s youngest sister, she adopted a lost refugee child during the flight from the Soviets, back in 1945. Married later here in Canada and had 2 sons.

Uncle #1:  Married to Aunt #1. He was 51 years old here. His history included exile to Arkhangelsk in 1915, life under Stalin, life under Hitler, time as a Soviet POW and finally arriving in Canada where he worked until his retirement as a school janitor. He made some really good homemade wine in his Okanagan home in his later years where he liked to talk about the Russian years to anyone who’d listen. We all dreaded his stories as kids.  

Cousin #1:  Next to Uncle #1,  on the right, daughter of Aunt #1 and Uncle #1.  She was the last of this group to pass on, back in September of this year.  Known for her beautiful garden in the Okanagan she didn't talk much about the past.

Uncle #2: Married my Aunt #3 in 1952. I know little about him. He died of asbestos poisoning after working at Alcan smelter for many years. Mostly, he's defined in my memory as the man with the white Cadillac. 

Aunt #3: Married to Uncle #2. My mom's other sister. Childless, she adopted two children.

A photograph with endless stories. Tragedies, comedies, romances, children’s tales … and big secrets. All the faces seem preoccupied. Are they thinking of the past … of the decimated old world? Perhaps they’re looking ahead ... to the potential of this new world. 

The table around which these Christmas dinner guests sat has been in my house until this fall when my youngest daughter took it over to her new place, also in Wolseley.  Legs chopped down to make it coffee table size, maybe it’ll continue to absorb conversation. 

My immigrant family.  I’m grateful for their adventurous spirit, their courage and for their stories. Maybe I was just a twinkle in my dad’s eye, or a slight bump in my mom’s lap … but like that table, I feel like I’m a part of that dinner, too. And almost 70 years old!

Happy Christmas Dinner to all. 

Reading By the Ghost Light

When I heard the author, R.H. Thomson, being interviewed about his new book, By the Ghost Light, back in November, I knew I had to read it. Couldn't believe that a Canadian with British ancestry—highly regarded in the theatre world—would come down hard against patriotism. However, I'm grateful that he did.  

His international project, The World Remembers, aims to name all the First World War dead ... of every country.  Here my family's losses are on par with the victor's losses.

The book's title refers to the lone light left on in a theatre after a play is done. Here’s a quote from the book: “To stand in a dark theatre after so much life has been acted out is a thrill. The only motion is the beating of my heart, the photons fleeing the ghost light, and my shadow shifting on the walls.” (page 168).

As a theatre actor, Thomson asks whether it’s worthwhile to tell stories that inevitably fade. He answers with an italicized Yes! (page 169).  Why?  Because it’s part of the “cycle of creation.” (page 169).  I appreciated his nuanced approach to shameful parts of his family history ... "I understand that I do not carry guilt for Augustus' actions, but I do carry the burden." (page 301). 

He shares family photos, letters, memories and encourages us to share ours. Even my family losses … silenced by so many years of Remembrance Day services that didn’t include my lost uncles, grandparents or civilian dead. I was an adult before I stopped wearing a poppy ... before I realized that the red flower celebrates military violence, rather than mourning war’s destruction.

public domain, Grieving Parents, K. Kollwitz, Belgium
I came across a review of the book by Dave Obee, in the Times Colonist. Obee writes, “It is a complex, fascinating, and passionate book that, despite side journeys, never strays from the main theme of wars, memory and families.”  I’m grateful to Obee, a BC journalist and genealogist who, along with Don Miller, have greatly aided me in solving my own family mysteries about the Germans from Volhynia. 

The final image of Thomson’s book comes via the art of German sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (born in Königsberg), who lost her son, Peter, during the Great War. The pain of a mother grieving the loss of a son to war is universal and her sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son, has been recreated inside the Neue Wache museum in Berlin.  Her Grieving Parents sculpture sits outside near Peter’s grave in Belgium.

CC Neue Wache, Berlin
Mother with her Dead Son by Kollwitz
Again, I’m reminded how my lost family members never got graves. For a long time, they didn’t even have names. But I’ve found them, named them and given them life in my own stories. Because sharing stories is part of remembering, part of healing, part of creation. 

 Thomson's book is worthwhile reading and it's prompting me to check out Chris Hedges, whom he quotes: "Until there is a common vocabulary and a shared historical memory, there is no peace in any society, only an absence of war.." (page 152)

Christmas is near ... time for family ... time for sharing stories and always, a time for peace.

Christmas Away from Home

Der Watzmann, CC BY-SA 3.0
I remember my first Christmas away from home. I was in Germany, in the town of Berchtesgaden near Salzburg, forever infamous as Hitler’s mountain getaway. I’d been on a university work program when I’d landed a serving position in one of the town’s pensions. The original six weeks morphed into almost a year of backpacking throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.   I met interesting people and had a myriad of experiences.

In between trips, I’d return to Berchtesgaden where I’d always find work. Berchtesgaden was like Canada’s Banff, filled with tourists and always in need of workers. Serving tables was a great way for me to improve my language skills and being in Germany was my first real attempt to explore my elusive roots. Life was an adventure. 

But working past midnight, as Christmas Eve became Christmas Morning, serving cocktails and caviar to well-off holiday skiers, took a toll on me.  I returned to my little servants’ quarters that I shared with some fast-asleep young women from Turkey, feeling more than tired—I felt lonely. 

What cheered me up? I had one gift to open from an aunt living in the opposite end of Germany … near Hamburg. I just remember the thrill of opening that present. It was a wallet with some German money inside and a note to come visit her. It made that Christmas memorable and even today I’m reminded of her kindness and of the power of gifts. 

Christmas makes loneliness more lonely. I’ve tried to convey that in my novels, and I hope to be sensitive to those around me … to reach out and give. 

Holodomor and Family

on grounds of Manitoba Legisture

One of my newcomer-friends from Ukraine forwarded links to a series of three films about the Holodomor which was marked this year on November 25th. I watched the movies on YouTube this past week. Since the series is in Ukrainian, I needed English sub-titles. What added to the normal challenge of watching a movie with subtitles, was that I was searching for a glimpse of my grandfather in the reels from the 1930s. Didn’t happen.

my grandfather, 
shot in 1937

I did see a lot of white-kerchiefed peasants, thatched houses, horses—pulling wagons filled with sacks of grain, menacing pitchforks, clips of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin … but no clips of my grandfather. He was supposedly hiding—running from village to village, using assumed names, after his release from a Zhytomyr prison in 1932.  By 1937, the authorities caught up with him and he was finally tried for treason and shot.

The other thing I saw a lot of in these films was dying children. Painful to watch. My mom and her three younger siblings got out in 1931, thanks to their father’s quick thinking and selflessness. 

Many Ukrainians are only now learning their own tragic history. After decades of suppression and of manipulation of their own stories, they’re finally dealing with their own trauma. This current war isn’t just about land … it’s about history and identity and about family secrets.  I’m not from a Ukrainian family. My mom, her siblings and parents, born in Ukraine, were ethnic Germans. But they were also affected by Stalin, his Five-Year Plans, and his forced collectivization.

Thatched house in the former Federofka, Ukraine

I never thought of my mom and grandparents as Germans or Ukrainians or Russians. I thought of them as family … later as displaced people simply trying to survive. Sure, they held on to some German traditions, to their mother language, but they also adapted as was necessary so that they could get along with their neighbours and build community. It’s kind of like what we’ve been living here in Canada. 

It’s been nine decades since Collectivization and the ensuing Holodomor destroyed the Ukrainian countryside—a long time for the truth to be known. 

Finding Story in the Facts

You, The Story (sub-titled, A Writer’s Guide to Craft through Memory) by Ruta Sepetys, was a slow read … not because it was difficult or tedious … but because it was affirming and comforting. It reminded me to trust my gut, to go with my instincts and to believe in my own story. Sprinkled throughout with user-friendly exercises, the book's a great resource … especially for beginners (of any age).  And what an interesting cover!

Sepetys, author of a couple of my favourite novels set in eastern Europe: Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray gives plenty of examples to showcase the power of perspective. She offers tips on using detail … “specificity is authenticity” (page 33), about dialogue, setting and courage. She reminds us that failure is a prerequisite to success.  

We manipulate truth ... we pick and choose memories to highlight our narrative. As writers of fiction we can shine the light on the parts that will move the story forward. 

I just finished reading Anne Berest’s new book, The Postcard—(again with an incredible cover!) a novel strongly inspired by memory. In fact, it’s curious that it says ‘a novel’ on the cover, rather than 'a memoir'.  Some readers, including a good friend of mine, say they have no time for fiction ... for make-believe, for pretend. I tend to disagree. It's through the ART of fiction that truth can be told. The Postcard is a prime example of Ruta Sepetys’ nonfiction guide to exploring memory. 

Both books, inspire me to continue solving my own family mysteries … one of which was also precipitated by a postcard. The postcard was from Berlin and arrived shortly after my father’s death in 1993. With the recent collapse of the Berlin wall, my father’s ex-wife had returned to  the city to remember. Her postcard stirred up memories about my father’s life in Nazi Germany when he'd had another family.  That postcard was a portal to a father I'd never known. 

Anne’s Berest’s novel, The Postcard, reads like a mystery and it explored aspects of the French experience of the war that I was unfamiliar with. Yes, that war is still relevant. 

One Year

It’s been a year since my novel, Crow Stone, was released. I still pinch myself that a story I carried with me since childhood has actually become a book. Turning my mom's confused memories into a narrative helped me appreciate the community of displaced people who enveloped my childhood.

While not topping bestseller lists, Crow Stone’s release, released me from the weight of my mother’s trauma ... a trauma that stayed with her until she died at age 92 ... still paranoid, but also resilient and clever.

Thank you again ...

- for support from my Canadian publisher, Ronsdale Press, even as they transitioned to new owners. 

-  for positive reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Canadian Materials Review and more. 

- for the book’s travels to the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs.

- for the attention from Dr. Mateusz Swietlicki, East European professor from Wroclaw, Poland.

- for German podcast listeners who got to hear me interviewed.

I’m grateful to you for sticking with me on my meanderings. My new projects … immigrant stories – one for adults and one for middle grade—are looking for homes. Traditional publishing is a challenging and crowded field.  More people are writing, less people are reading. 

I keep reminding myself ... it's a journey, not a destination. 

Picking Favourites—Not Fair!

Shepherd, an online database of books connecting readers, authors, and their books by theme asked contributors to select their favourite books of the year. Not fair! Almost every book I read is a true treasure and I appreciate and respect the writer and their need to tell a story. 

That said, much of my reading these past few years, has focused on the history of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and Second World War history.  Violence involving the former USSR continues to create headline news as the ‘special military operation’ grinds on into a second year with no end in sight. War and death dominate our news and Canada is flooded with  21st century war refugees. 

The authors of my three book choices include:  Erin Litteken, an American novelist writing for adults. Marsha Skrypuch, a Canadian novelist writing for middle grade, and Mateusz Swietlicki, a Polish academic, specializing in East European studies.  To find out about the books I chose, visit Shepherd.

It’s empowering to know that the experiences of our families, hidden for decades because of war, immigration and even shame, are being explored via the power of literature. These are excellent books, targeted at a variety of readers,  about a history that still matters. 

Thank you to the folks at Shepherd for making it so much easier to follow topics of interest. I recommend them to fellow authors, readers and teachers. A great resource!

Check out their website for favourite reads of almost 1000 authors. And if you're an author, you might want to join their growing list. 

Pumpkin Talk

I shared an interesting conversation this week with my EAL student, (I’ll call her Olga) a recent arrival from Ukraine. We discussed the North American celebration of Halloween. None of the students I’ve worked with, from South Korea, China, Iran and several now from Ukraine, are comfortable with our infatuation of scary. The immigrant church community where I grew up wasn’t too happy with Hallowe’en either.  (Halloween or Hallowe’en comes from Hallowed Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day).

For young Canadians, Hallowe’en is about pumpkin carving, fake graveyards on suburban lawns, ghost sheets blowing in the wind and candy—lots of candy. Us older folks like scaring ourselves with a good ghost story or movie. Halloween frights equal the adrenaline rush of a roller coaster ride. Nothing more. 

During our conversation, Olga and I looked at Halloween traditions around the world. In Mexico, the holiday takes place over two days and family graves are lit up with candles. I learned that in Ukraine, cemeteries are visited the week after Easter and food is left behind to nourish their souls. Here in Canada, we have no special holiday for the dead.  Not even a day off work. Just an evening where kids get to dress up and go begging for candy throughout their neighbourhood. We laugh at scary.

Meanwhile in Russia, they’re snubbing anything Western. This year, they have their own version of Halloween and call it Pumpkin Saviour’s Day

Art Above Politics, Love Above War

Several years ago, I met Helen, a newcomer from Russia, at Bev Morton’s Wayne Arthur gallery here in Winnipeg. (Bev sadly passed away in Nov/21).  Helen’s art was as captivating as her warm personality. As a newcomer to Canada, she was eager to be accepted in our culture using her art as a universal language. During one of her doll workshops, I got to know her better while creating my little ‘kulak’ doll. 

Unfortunately, Canada is home to many a starving artist.  Becoming financially independent as an artist is a huge challenge for locals as well as new residents. My Russian friend struggled to make the proper connections but money was always tight. Disappointed, she finally returned back to Russia, her Canadian husband, Ed, in tow.  

Helen and Ed created a home for themselves—and for Helen's art—outside of Togliatty (known for its Lada cars) in the Samara Oblast. 

My Katya doll

Before Helen left Canada, she and I had collaborated on a picture book. Time was short and the project shelved until late 2021. Finally, in January, 2022 we focused time online working on the details. Helen was determined to make this happen and I admired her tenacity. Then in February 24, 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine and our book project was again stalled.

Kudos to Helen for believing in the power of family, of friendship and of art, for finishing up this story project. I wrote the English text, Helen supplied the Russian translation and created the art, the layout and the final production. She launched the book at her gallery in Samara earlier this fall. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to visit Togliatty on the Volga River and together we can spread the message that just because people are different, doesn’t mean we can’t still love and support each other.

Someday this war will end and we can return to feathering our nests instead of destroying them. And someday, I will have this book about storks and cuckoos produced for distribution in Canada. 

Remembering Ed Young and his Seven Blind Mice

The author of possibly my favourite children’s picture book has died. Ed Tse-chun Young both wrote and illustrated Caldecott-award-winner, Seven Blind Mice (1992). The inspiration for the book came from an Indian fable known as “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”  

CC Alvintrusty

Young received an earlier Caldecott medal in 1990, for his picture book, Lon Po Po. (A re-telling of the Chinese Red Riding Hood).  Born in 1931, he was raised in China, a culture which influenced most of his picture books. Young is quoted as saying:

“A Chinese painting is often accompanied by words … they are complementary. There are things that words do that pictures never can, and likewise, there are images that words can never describe." 

He moved to the USA when he was 19 and studied art, receiving many awards for his picture books ...

 ... stories that focus on Chinese and Indigenous folktales and I loved sharing them with my children when they were young. Over the years, it's the wisdom of Seven Blind Mice and its stark images that has stayed with me. 

The collage artwork in Seven Blind Mice, is featured on solid black.  Kirkus Reviews said, “Exquisitely crafted: a simple, gracefully honed text, an appealing story, real but unobtrusive values and levels of meaning, and outstanding illustrations and design--all add up to a perfect book.” (1992)

Compare this to a Kirkus review of an early Ed Young book, Up a Tree, where the reviewer writes, “A negligible idea occupying a very few pages--to be no sooner seen than forgotten.”  (1983) Ouch! Good thing Mr. Young didn’t let such a negative review stop him. 

Ed Young’s mice have been my role models. Sharing other points of view lets us grow wiser. I’m grateful for his art, his vision and his stories. 

Hoarding Issues

I heard a fascinating podcast which featured Nan Turner’s new book, Clothing Goes to War, discussing the shortage of fabric during the Second World War. Reducing, reusing & recycling was the norm. Fabric was expensive and clothes were usually sewn at home.  Not only was cloth in short supply, but so was rubber and metal which affected elastics, zippers and the always necessary, women’s girdle. We all know about the nylon shortage and the leg make-up, and eyebrow pencil back seams. 

During my childhood, Mom threw nothing out. Everything had a use. Snippets of elastic could hold up worn out knee highs, zippers were torn out of old sweaters and used in new sweaters. The new sweaters, of course, were made from the unraveled old sweater. I still have a clothespin bag made of a corduroy vest my mom wore back in 1950, with an ancient zipper torn out from a skirt.  (It’s no coincidence that the sub-title of Nan Turner’s new books is, “Creativity inspired by Scarcity in World War II.”)  

As that war generation dies, we’re now cleaning up their leftovers. Sometimes their closets, like their stories, are jammed full of stuff we want to ignore or throw out. Some of it truly is tired old junk. 

A friend of mine is currently dealing with her 98 year-old-mother’s hoarding. It can become a disease … a thriftiness that results in isolation and paranoia. But back when she lived in Schlesien or Silesia (now western Poland), during the war … during the formative years of her life … hoarding meant survival.  

Advertisers, in magazines like Life, always mentioned thrift and supporting the war effort. But they also offered hope for the future, when there would be new clothes. 

Come and See

Saw the re-mastered movie, Come and See, last week at Cinematheque a small, boutique-style theatre that showcases independent and international films here in our Exchange Distract.  It came out originally in 1985. 

Come and See is set in the forests of Belarus, in 1943, and focuses on the partisan movement. Some might consider the film a horror show, but it was in fact a war movie. It depicted animal cruelty, rape and violent death on the eastern front during the Second World War. According to the closing moments of the film, 628 Belarus villages were burned to the ground by the Nazis. Similar burnings happened in Ukraine. It’s no wonder a Ukrainian woman once spit in my face when I talked with survivors of such atrocities. I heard of how women and children were separated from the men, herded into barns and set ablaze. 

I searched the internet for some stats on Ukrainian losses and found this: “... the world never heard about the Ukrainian village of Kortelisy which the Germans burned to the ground on September 23, 1942 and killed all its 2,892 population of men, women and children. There were about 459 villages in Ukraine completely destroyed with all or part of their population by the German Army with 97 in Volhynia Province, 32 in Zhitomir province, 21 in Chernihiv province, 17 in Kiev province and elsewhere. There were at least 27 Ukrainian villages in which every man, woman and child was killed and the village completely destroyed by the Germans. (Ukrainska RSR u Velykyi Vitchyznianiy Viyni, vol.3, p. 150).

public domain, Stanislaviv, October, 1941
My father was sent to the eastern front in October, 1944. He never talked much about it — focusing his war memories on his earlier time in the Luftwaffe, until he crashed. I think his new position in the Military Police was to discipline the failing moral of the Wehrmacht. I know that he drove a motorcycle with a sidecar … like a Nazi in the movie. I felt quite uncomfortable watching those scenes, along with the others where the Nazis drink, loot, shoot, rape and sing. The father I grew up with liked to go fishing and hunting. He liked to build things and read books. He built model Junker airplanes with my brother.  So excuse my obsession with that old war.  It forms part of my identity.

my dad, 1944

Last week our parliament honoured a 98-year-old Ukrainian-Canadian, Yaroslav Hunka, who had supported the Nazis in Ukraine. Canada cringes with the political fallout and Poland demands his extradition. It would be fascinating to hear Hunka’s story. Why are we so eager to seek revenge on something that can never be revenged? Hunka would have been 20 years old at the end of the war. He would have grown up under Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, experienced the Holodomor. He might have seen the Nazis as liberators from the Soviets. He might have had to choose between two evils. Until we hear his story, we might hold off on judging him. 

The film, Come and See, depicted the horrors of Nazi atrocities with gut-wrenching visuals. If 18-year-old Hunka played a role in those events he does not deserve honour. But neither does he deserve my judgement. I can only be curious. What's his story? 

Another War Story

I’m grateful not to have completely lost my German language skills because I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sibel Daniel’s, 2020 release, Bündnis der Herzen, from Tinte & Feder, a German imprint belonging to Amazon (parallels Amazon's English language imprint, Lake Union Publishing).  Not sure why, but I find reading in another language makes me pay more attention to writing style. Perhaps simply because I’m more focused on the language itself. 

Daniel’s crisp, fluid writing brings life to a world war that refuses to be forgotten. With compelling sensory details, she tells an old story with a fresh voice which invites the reader to use all their senses … to inhale the same air, hear the same sounds, taste the same food as the characters. Here’s an example from page 410, “Der Duft der Gans scheint aus der Vergangenheit herüber in die Gegenwart zu wehen.“  Who hasn’t experienced the power of smell to evoke memories?

Multi-point-of-view transitions are deft and seamless. The three main female characters come from different stages of life … the child, the teenager, and the mother. The male characters also span a wide range of ages and backgrounds … all with conflicting interests, all strongly affected by a war beyond their control. Greed, lust, fear, altruism, patriotism and, of course, romance, are all explored through the interactions of the diverse characters.

The novel’s set mostly in a small farming village in the Black Forest area of Germany near the end of the war. The forced labourers, recruited from nearby occupied France, live and work in close proximity to the German women and children. The story focuses on a romance between a young German woman, Klara (or Claire, for the French) and Gilbert, a French spy, posing as a forced labourer. 

While a tad on the long side, I found the novel completely captivating and needed to grab a tissue to wipe away tears near the poignant end. As in earlier books I read this summer, focused on Ukrainian war history, here too the author bridges the present to the past with a multi-generational epilogue. It’s been close to 80 years now, but storm damage from the Second World War continues to resound in our lives. 

end of an era

Cousin Sieglinde and me in Kelowna a few years ago

Sad to say that the last of my mom’s family, born in Ukraine, has passed away. Sieglinde was one of nine family members who crossed the Atlantic, from Bremerhafen to Quebec City on the Beaverbrae in July, 1953.  As a toddler, she’d escaped Stalin’s attack on ethnic Germans and grew up in East Prussia before and during the war. In my novels, I fictionalized her as Susanna and will refer to her as S. in this post. 

S. didn’t talk much about the past. With stoic resolve, she focused on her new life here in Canada and supported her family with fierce dedication. Her beautiful garden in the mild Okanagan was a treasure and I appreciated the insights she occasionally shared with me about my mom. She understood family dynamics, evolved over decades of struggle, but kept silent unless I asked exactly the right questions. Like with my mom, I had to be careful … I didn’t want to trigger past traumas. 

S. was a young teenager when the war ended. Like my mother, a refugee fleeing the Soviets, she never made it to the safety of ships waiting on the Baltic coast. While S. didn’t end up a prisoner of war like my mother, her fate was just as arduous and lasted longer. As a farm labourer under the revenge-seeking Soviets, she was forced to work in one of the newly formed collectives in the now Kaliningrad Oblast. From the summer of 1945 until the fall of 1947, she toiled in the north eastern part of the oblast, close to the Lithuanian border, near a village known as Pillkallen (renamed Schlossberg by the Nazis) and now called Dobrovolsk by the Russians. If you're curious, here's a link to some before and after photos of the village. 

Almost all the remaining ethnic Germans were finally expelled in late 1948 and she ended up re-connecting with my mom and the surviving family in Schleswig-Holstein. 

I wish I knew more about those early years of the Soviet regime in the former East Prussia.  I’m eager to dive into Nicole Eaton’s new book, German Blood, Slavic Soil, which just arrived in my mailbox.  

Rest in peace, dear cousin. You kept your stories to yourself, but you shared beauty, generosity and kindness towards me and I’m grateful for the family connection. Family stories—our history—live on when we share them. Whether it's through books, photos, songs, recipes, or favourite perennials ... it’s not just about remembering our past. It’s about healing for our future.


I’m drawn to old stuff. Old trees, old cheese, old dogs, old books, old stories. And I love old ruins. Most ruins around here, however, are made of wood and don't last too long.

But back in the 1930s, the Catholic church—under the leadership of Monsignor Morton—created a summer camp for kids called Camp Morton, where they used stones as construction materials. Using rocks, scattered along Lake Winnipeg, they created gardens, cabins, meeting halls, a water tower and more. 

The Lake Winnipeg camp was gifted to the province and made into a public resort back in the seventies and the stone structures are now neglected ruins. The old is crumbling and tumbling back into Lake Winnipeg. Huge chunks of lakeshore have dropped into the water and the stones—so artfully arranged into gardens and meeting places—have collapsed as nature once again reclaims its stones. 

If only the stones could talk.  I've been trying to listen and have imagined some interesting stories ... so maybe they do!


I’ve spent this beautiful summer immersed in Ukraine’s 20th century troubles. I bookended Maya’s Memories, an excellent locally-written memoir, with Erin Litteken’s two recent best-selling novels, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv and The Lost Daughters of Ukraine. Made for some dark headspace. 

The fire-bombing of Dresden, as portrayed in the second half of The Lost Daughters of Ukraine, seemed particularly harsh. With friends affected by the wildfires around Kelowna, I’ve been quite aware of the side effects of smoke. My friends had to evacuate their homes and find shelter elsewhere … worried that their homes might burn. Imagine also being hungry, homeless and unable to trust those around you.

Perhaps I just have too good an imagination. Perhaps too much of a bleeding heart. Which reminds me of Marilyn French’s novel, The Bleeding Heart, which in turn reminds me of  French’s Her Mother’s Daughter, both of which I read years ago but which had a powerful impact on me. Time to reread, perhaps? Strong women characters. Men bleed on battlefields. Women bleed in other ways.

Litteken’s The Lost Daughters of Ukraine portrayed relentless suffering. From Soviet to Nazi occupation to indiscriminate bombing by the Allies and years of homelessness. It was difficult to read and I’m sure it was difficult to research and write. But it was even harder to live through. 

My weekly English sessions with current Ukrainian refugees, escaping a new war, reinforces the printed stories I’ve been reading. Every day, news headlines tell of further atrocities ... of lives turned upside down, of families separated, of uncertain futures. It keeps happening. 

Litteken’s two novels, inspired by family history, must have been a relief to get out. I know that’s how I’ve felt with my family stories. In the Author’s Note, Litteken writes, “This story—much of it dealing with painful, brutal history and with my own family’s traumas—was difficult to write. But even in the midst of the darkness, I found glimpses of light.” (p. 400)  She goes on to mention that by ignoring national identities and seeing humans first, we can learn from the past. John Lennon said it succinctly in his song, Imagine

“Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too”

My friends tell me I should stop reading this stuff. That I should lighten up. Ha. I should. And I try. But I can’t ignore what’s happening in our world and I can’t ignore the past that has contributed to the present. Because it’s all connected. 

Volyn is not Volhynia

Having read a couple of books recently set in Volhynia, I’m reminded again of its complicated past, influenced by different political, religious and ethnic groups.  I need to refresh my frame of reference and look at a map.  My great-grandparents, ethnic Germans who were originally Lutheran, moved into Volhynia in the 1860s from the Gdańsk area (then called Danzig) and later converted to Baptist. 

Zhytomyr Oblast in modern Ukraine

        My grandfather was born near Zhytomyr (about 150 kilometers west of Kyiv) in the 1870s.  At that time, the city was considered part of the Russian Empire. When my mother was born in 1919, Zhytomyr became the capital of the short-lived (1917-1920) Ukrainian People’s Republic. By the time my mom turned one, Zhytomyr was part of the USSR. Their family farm, centered around the hand-built windmill, labelled them state enemies, or kulaks, by 1930. 

On the maps, the 2 oblasts are separated by the Rivne Oblast. There are 24 oblasts (provinces in total).

Volyn Olbast in modern Ukraine
My extended family —most of whom were targeted through exile, arrest, and execution, had lived in a scattered community of German villages which were dominated by a zealous evangelical Baptist faith. (One that my mother continued to embrace here in Canada in the 1950s).  The Germans in Volhynia built a faith-based seminary to train their own pastors in Heimtal (remnants still standing), to compliment the existing one in Odesa.  They also built a central red brick church in Neudorf (1907) one of the biggest churches in the area. Times were booming for the Baptists and the farmers … until Stalin’s First Five Year Plan to collectivize farms.

Today, the area known as the Volyn Oblast is further west and my mother’s territory is part of the current Zhytomyr Oblast. Other main centres in the area included Pulyny (called Pulin by the Germans) and Koresten to the north (300 km from Chernobyl). 

It’s all confusing and I keep messing up.  With the current war, all that messed up history stirs up memories of past injustices. So hard to keep one’s self-identity when names of your home are in flux and your people have disappeared. 

No wonder my mother never knew if she was German, Russian, Ukrainian. No wonder she embraced her faith and later, being Canadian.  

Naming Characters

About Olga becoming Katya.  Back when I was writing The Kulak’s Daughter I chose the name Olga for my protagonist. While uncommon here in North America, it’s popular in eastern Europe. The name, in fact, has Scandinavian roots and is meant to be a positive blessing for a child. But every immigrant knows that names don’t always travel well. What’s considered a pretty name in one language, might connote only ‘otherness’ in another.

My mom had a Tante (Aunt) Olga and there were several older Olgas in my immigrant church congregation. It was a name I associated with ‘otherness’ but also with old and with the 'old' country. Olgas were the 'babushkas' during my childhood ... along with the Elfriedas and Hildegards. Just plain old-fashioned immigrants.  I also like Olga because it translated to Helga in German and that seemed convenient to my purposes as I developed my stories. (There is no H sound in Russian. Hence, Hitler becomes Gitler.)

My editor, however, decided that the name Olga was too foreign-sounding and off-putting for potential Canadian readers and wanted me to change it. I did so reluctantly and still regret it. It seemed to only underline the foreignness of my own name, Gabriele Ulrike, a name that marked me as an outsider when I was going to school. My parents called me Gabby (Gabi) and teachers butchered my name, giving it French flair, like Gabriella, or masculinity, like Gabriel. I still have to correct official documents. And my middle name, Ulrike? Well, that’s also been an embarrassment. 

How I pined for a simple name that would blend in with the masses … like Debbie or Karen … a name that would not be mispronounced or misspelled. I was named after twins that my mom helped birth in post-war Germany, and all I can say is, I’m grateful that Gabriele was born before Ulrike! 

The Ukrainian newcomers I’ve been meeting here in Canada, all have such lyrical names like Tatiana, Elena, Oksana, Anastasia. Musical names that sing like songbirds.  Makes Gabe sound like a lonely one-note crow. 

Othering Each Other

Maya’ Memories is a well-written memoir filled with vivid detail. Written by Maya’s son, Gene Kirichenko, from here in Winnipeg, it’s told in his mother’s voice. 

Maya was born in Slo’yansk in 1926, a city in the Donetsk Oblast of eastern Ukraine. The city of Slo’yansk has been brutalized over much of the last hundred years—from the Holodomor to the Nazi and Soviet conflict, to the 2014 Russian invasion.  When her son published the memoir, Maya was already 89 years old. 

Gene Kirichenko’s efforts to document his mother’s incredible life have been beautifully presented in this 300-page, coil-bound edition.  I’m grateful to my friend, Pat Trottier, who gifted me this book. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to two recent novels by Erin LittekenThe Lost Daughters of Ukraine and The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, that I’ve been reading this summer. 

Maya’s Memories is also a wonderful supplement to the weekly chats I have with recent Ukrainian newcomers because the assault on Ukrainians continues to this day. Whether it was Soviet destruction under Stalin, or Nazi destruction under Hitler, or modern Russian destruction under Putin, the Ukrainian people have been attacked again and again. And, sadly, they have had only limited access to their own memories. They’ve been locked up behind Russian and Soviet propaganda, behind silent fears, behind misplaced stoicism,  and sometimes behind the numbing of homemade vodka.

Earlier in the week, I had a visit with Anne, an 89 year old German woman, born into a Mennonite community in the southern area of Ukraine near Odesa. Her family retreated with the German Army in 1943 and she ended up in Canada in 1949 … the same year that Maya would have arrived here in Winnipeg. Two young women, enemies over there and starting over here in Canada … invisible to each other.

Their governments had turned on their own, forcing young men to become killers for love of country, dividing families and taking away their geographical homes. In Canada they adapted, even if it meant losing their language and what was left of their culture.  Survivors trickled over, to places like Winnipeg, where they became mere humans again … no longer identified by uniforms, badges or documents that labeled them as other. 

Can we hold onto this equality? Or are we again going to submit to fear and find strength in ‘othering’ each other?

About Homes

House in the former Federofka , Ukraine (mom's home village)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the newcomers to Canada with whom I’ve been meeting are looking forwards not backwards. I know that my immigrant parents didn’t talk much about the war, about the Soviet prisons, about their homelessness. Instead they focused on working, on building homes, creating gardens and raising their children. They didn’t sit around and discuss why it took until 1945 for the war to end. They didn’t wonder if they could have found another evacuation route. They didn’t question what had happened to them. They just focused on the present... on creating a home.

Currently, I’ve been learning from recent Ukrainian arrivals. (Ha! They think they’re learning to improve their English, while truly, I’m re-learning what it means to escape from a war-torn country.) The women I’ve talked with don’t want to discuss politics. They don’t want to talk about the military strategies or about potential outcomes. They want stable jobs, a good education for their children and a decent apartment. Their native languages are Ukrainian or Russian. For them, languages are tools not political systems. 

Uncle's home in Slavskoye, now part
of Kaliningrad Oblast

I’m rather surprised that in some cases I know more about their history than they do. I’m more surprised that they don’t really care. Like I said, they have more immediate concerns. All of this helps me realize how it was when my parents arrived here in the fifties and shelved the past into books and photo albums that became yellowed, dusty and almost forgotten. 

What will Ukraine be when the war ends? Many Ukrainians will be wounded or dead. Many will be citizens of another country. Whole cities have been destroyed. The students I work with have no home to return to. Their families and friends have all scattered throughout Europe and Canada—wherever they could find asylum. 

When I cycled through my mother’s second home in East Prussia, I found just a divided land of ruins. The house her uncle built still stood, but the old man in it was from Kazakhstan. Friendly chap. Happy to have a house with a garden for his retirement. My mom’s first home in Volhynia, once a rich farmland dotted with wooden windmills and red brick churches, became a scattered collection of poverty-stricken hamlets with crushed people in crumbling shacks. 

Next to father's home in Schleswig-Holstein

I admire the energy, spirit and ambition of the Ukrainian people. They help me appreciate the good life I’ve been living here. Peace. 

Here’s a quote I’ve often considered. Because war isn’t only about soldiers. War is about ordinary people. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone. 

Why of course the people don't want war. …  But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

― Hermann Goering

Parents' first home in Winnipeg

My Teapot

I’ve been drinking green tea, brewed in this Made in Poland enamel teapot almost daily for nearly fifty years. I bought it, along with one for coffee, down in the Hudson’s Bay store, back in the 70s, when they had a grocery in the basement.  My Polish pot has sipped me through many a morning.  An interesting side note: Oskar Schindler owned an enamelware factory in Kraków during the war where he was able to protect Jews. A current enamelware factory is in Olkusz, Poland.

Over the years, I’d receive new teapots—for a while I was enchanted with clear glass ones—but they always ended up cracking. Nothing has withstood the decades of use (and at times, abuse … I’m thinking of campfires where the colour was completely charred over) like this aqua-coloured pot of comfort. 

Summer, in the sun-dappled shade garden, with a pot of green tea and a good book … a cup of peace, in tense times.

Meanwhile, Poland sends more troops to the Suwalki Gap, that 65 kilometre border with Lithuania separating Belarus from Kaliningrad. Reports of Wagner fighters heading to that same weak spot in the NATO alliance are being denied by Belarus.  There’s more trouble brewing. Too bad a pot of tea won’t solve our world’s problems.

About Der Arzt von Stalingrad

Konsalik's grave in Köln, Germany
CC Raimond Spekking 
The novel begins with the sense of smell, “Alles riecht heute wieder nach Kohlsuppe.” (trans. Everything here smells again like cabbage soup.) My father detested anything to do with cabbage. Cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, cabbage salad … cabbage was not welcome at our house. Too many years of Soviet captivity ruined any of the vegetable’s goodness for him. Sensory details like this bring immediacy and authenticity throughout the novel. 

So who was the author? Heinz Konsalik was born in 1921 (making him 3 years younger than my father). A prolific writer (155 novels), he was the most popular author in Germany during the 1950s. As a war correspondent during the war, he was able to witness, firsthand, the atrocities of war. His novels emphasize the human side of war and are non-political. 

Konsalik, however, could not control the racial superiority that ekes of this novel. The moral judgment against non-white characters in the book reflects Konsalik’s immersion in the Hitler Youth and his time in the Gestapo. He displays unchecked Nazi attitudes towards women who are idealized as sexual animals, saintly innocents, or brave mothers. I’m not sure what he would do with the real-life German women who gave up waiting for their missing men and who lost their moral compass during the chaos of the Third Reich’s collapse (women like my father’s first wife). 

In fact, Konsalik’s view of both women and of Asians is prejudiced to the extreme. Reader beware! Russians, on the other hand, are seen as equals. Victims, like Germans, of cruel leaders and political systems. 
Memorial to Stalingrad battle in modern Volgograd
Aleksander Kaasik, CC

Our world has changed a lot since 1956. While it’s easy to dismiss Konsalik’s work as racist and anti-feminist (which it is), he’s still a darn good writer. With engaging characters and emotional nuance, he created a page-turner. More than sixty years later, I read this book with a critical eye and an appreciation of how literature reflects change in our societies. 

Oh, and because I’ve been spending more time than usual visiting hospitals, lately—while reading this book—I really grew to appreciate the challenges for medical professionals in Soviet-era, prisoner of war hospitals. No wonder my dad never wanted to go see a doctor here in Canada! I’d like to read more of Konsalik’s novels. He’s given me insight into the German psyche and some of my own father’s war experiences.

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