Northern Lights, the dog and me

The dog who likes late-night walks
I'm the foster grandparent to our now ten-year-old black lab/pitbull mix who was only coming to visit for a couple of months ... nine years ago. My son moved on, into a no-dog place, and how could I ever say no to this frightened, confused canine who only wanted love.  I've had dogs in my life for almost thirty years now and I'm not sure what it would be like to come home without a tail wagging a welcome.

Without our dogs I would not have explored this neighbourhood like I have. I would definitely not have discovered the joys of late night walks, no matter what the weather, and I would not have seen last week's northern lights. 

I've experienced the aurora borealis several times over the years. One memorable time was camping out at Hecla on Lake Winnipeg. The northern lights put on an awesome display over the vast lake and were the inspiration behind my scene in The Kulak's Daughter/Red Stone when the kulak children were out rabbit hunting on the snowy Siberian steppe.

Northern Lights in Winnipeg, Canada

Putting northern lights into a Siberian scene was a no-brainer for me because my mom, the inspiration for the novel's protagonist, Olga/Katya, liked to compare our prairie weather to Siberia. "Just like Siberia," she'd often quip. It was a huge disappointment for her ... something she could not forgive me for ... that I chose to work outside as a mail carrier while raising my three kids. She'd say, "I didn't survive Siberia so my daughter could freeze in Winnipeg." In fact, it took four years of hiding my winter gear when she came to visit, before I finally shared my shameful truth. Yes, I worked outside in Winnipeg's Siberia-like winter.  I tried to tell her about the many layers of clothes I wore, of the good boots I had, and of the warm, nourishing breakfast I'd start out with. It didn't matter. She'd raised me to be smart, not a fool who trudged through snow and cold.  Still, I've no regrets. While I haven't been able to visit Siberia yet, Siberia—its cold, its snow, its dancing lights— feels familiar.

And... the point of all this, is that Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature, recently published an article by Dr. Mateusz Swietlicki and Sylwia Kaminska-Maciag called Northern Lights are Our Friends: Soviet Deportations and Siberian Nature in Children's and Young Adult Literature

So you never know what a night walk, a dog and an old woman's Siberian memories can have in common. In the IBBY article, the two co-authors reference how the vastness of the Russian landscape affected the young exiles in the more than a dozen works cited. Experiencing nature is research and a wonderful perk of a writer's life. 

Broken but not gone

Broken Stone, out of print, but still getting noticed! I'm grateful to Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (her most recent book, Winterkill is about the Holodomor) who has been so generous with her support to me over the years. Not only does she write thrilling books set during the war that have received world-wide acclaim, but she's always there for bumblers like me who just can't get their writing career out of low gear.

Thanks also to the good folks at An amazing database of books organized by themes and trying hard to compete with the Goodreads/Amazon giants in our lives. Thanks to them for dreaming big, for reaching out, and for their brave tenacity. To all my fellow readers and writers ... check out and get lost exploring your passions. 
Here's the link to Broken Stone on Shepherd.

A few copies of Broken Stone are still available online and directly from me.  Both Red Stone (the prequel, focused on kulak collectivization and Siberian exile and Broken Stone (about the consequences of that exile) were published by independent (now defunct) publishers with small print runs and limited availability. All rights have returned to me and with the recent interest in Russia and Ukraine I'm considering ways to re-release them. Any ideas? I'm listening. 

Nature's Library

Lake Manitoba 

Shorelines attract me. I’m drawn to them like a bookworm to a library. They’re meeting places—where the water connects to land and to the sky.

Tangled Roots On Lake Winnipeg

I especially like rough, neglected shores, off the beaten track. A couple of days ago it was cold, windy, with intermittent rain. Not the sort of weather my dog, daughter and I had envisioned for our beach-combing adventure—but inviting—nonetheless.

The pre-holiday, off-leash dog beach was pleasantly deserted. It was just us, the crashing waves, and nature. We found art in timeless stones and in the driftwood of uprooted trees. So many stories in the ancient stone, in the wave-crushed sand and in the bare, mangled roots of once strong trees. 

I take pieces of this history home where they get artfully (I try!) arranged in my garden like souvenirs from a journey, or artifacts in a museum. My garden tells silent tales of other places and past traumas. Out of place and yet showcased … made meaningful by my memories and imagination.

My mother's shore
The Baltic Sea off the Curonian Spit

Seems to me there’s a writerly point to all this. The stones and the roots—damaged or changed by storms and by time—are like characters in a novel. Moments of trauma, of heartbreak, of the relentless passage of time, creating insight and receiving artful (I try here too!) placement into a narrative. My garden, my stories, my attempts to make meaning out of the random chaos of life. Stories ... shorelines where imagination creates art.  Shorelines … time-less and yet so time-full. 

My father's shore
View on Heligoland of the North Sea

Remembering Don Miller, 1932 - 2023

Don Miller, May, 2004, Kyiv cemetery
I’m quite certain that I would not have found my family stones in rural Ukraine if it weren’t for this man, Don Miller. When I’d first worked out the spelling of my mom’s home village and entered it into a search engine on the computer (back in 2003 computers were still magic machines), I’d come to Don’s website, In the Midst of Wolves. I emailed this man from Oregon, a retired Baptist minister, and asked if he’d heard of Federofka. (Again, checking and rechecking the spelling. It was all so foreign-sounding back then). His reply, Federofka? I go there almost every year! Suddenly, my mom’s murky past was a place in real time.

I was very much affected by the incredible research he did into the German Baptist settlers of the Volhynian area around Zhytomyr. HIs first book, In the Midst of Wolves, A History of German Baptists in Volhynia, Russia 1863-1943, (self-published in Oregon in 2000) introduced me to the world of my mother's family and to the rural farming world of Ukraine. 

In 2004 I traveled to the Zhytomyr area with Don as our roots tour guide. Through his local connections, I visited what were then isolated, poverty-stricken villages. I got to talk with an old woman who remembered my mom's family and the location of the windmill. I got to access the restricted secret police archives and found my grandfather's signature on interrogation documents. The vibrant world of the kulaks had been destroyed during Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. With the fall of communism, the collective farms were, by 2004, also a thing of the past. Don opened doors for my research as he dug deeper into the NKVD (former OGPU) secret police files.  His next book, Under Arrest, came out the same year.

It was the cover of Under Arrest that led Don and I to discover our family connection. His uncle, Heinrich Mueller, on the cover, adopted my mom’s cousin, Sofia (Sophie), on the cover. Like my grandfather, Don’s uncle was one of the many men from the area executed during the Great Terror. And so Don and I shared an intense interest in this region and these times. 

See photo of Don talking with old woman in my mom's home village. The old women remembered ...collectivization, deportation, Holodomor, Great Terror, Chernobyl, and on and on it goes.

But Don’s legacy isn’t simply about the past. Even as he researched past crimes, past atrocities, he offered support for contemporary injustices. I’m mostly aware of the homes he established for aging and isolated widows. But there was so much more he did to help those willing to try through the creation of Samaritan Ministries of Ukraine (SMU).

Don believed in people and he believed in God. These passions were contagious and he will be sorely missed, but I’ll continue to be empowered by the force of his life. 

Don Miller died May 4th. He was almost 91. 


Moments in May

Grandfather's land, view from where the 
windmill once stood, 35 km NW of Zhytomyr

It’s been 19 years since I visited Ukraine. That trip blew my mind … and started spinning the arms of a ghostly windmill. It was on the red stone ruins of that forgotten windmill, I found the heart of my lost family. Traveling the confusing history of collectivization, of deportation, of terror, of a collapsed communist regime, I found a battered Ukrainian village and the stepping stones for my family stories.

May is also the month I first became a mother ... something which redefined my relationship with my own mother. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I could see the broken child in her, when she held my newborn daughter for the first time. She looked up at me and suggested that love for babies was wasted because they’d never remember it. I felt sorry for her and protective of my bundle of joy which seemed to sit in her arms more like an awkward doll, then a real human being.  

Until that day she held my daughter, I’d seen my mom as older, wiser, someone to please and look up to.  Now, suddenly, we were peers. We were both mothers. However, it seemed to separate us rather than bring us together.

The chasm deepened with my next two kids as I spent more time and emotional energy on my young family. After my father died, my mother asked that I treat her like one of my children. She wanted me to mother her. 

It was a challenging time … for me and for her. But when I went to Ukraine, when I found the remains of the windmill, when I researched, wrote and experienced her story, the power of her losses, I began to understand. My mother was indeed jealous of the family I had created. She was still mourning her lost family of childhood. 

It began on that kulak farm and those losses followed her throughout her life. 

Windmill ruins.  First destroyed by Stalin.
No doubt these won't survive
Putin's war.

Middle Grade Holodomor

I simply loved Katherine Marsh’s new release, The Lost Year. This middle grade novel connects a thirteen-year-old boy, Matthew, with his great-grandmother, who survived the Holodomor—Ukraine’s man-made famine of 1932/3. The strength in this book comes from the connection between young people and old people. 

My own family connection to kulaks and Ukraine instantly attracts me to any book … fiction, non-fiction, adult or middle-grade … written on the subject. In her author’s note, in spite of numerous sources for her research, Katherine Marsh says that own family that served as her “emotional touchstone” (p. 346). 

Putin now repeats Stalin’s approach by pitting families against each other. The history of almost a hundred years ago haunts us once again—families are being broken by the manipulative propaganda of a cruel regime. Kulaks, like my mother and her family, were the scapegoat back in the early 1930s. Jews were the scapegoat for the Nazis. Ukrainians are the scapegoat for modern Russia.

Marsh shows how the 1930s world was quick to believe Walter Duranty’s claim in the New York Times that the famine was exaggerated. The power of media continues to play a vital role in our world and it’s never been more at risk. Back in late March, 2023, the American journalist, Evan Gershkovich, accused of spying, was arrested in Russia. Back in 1933, Gareth Jones, a young Welsh journalist, reported on starvation in the Soviet Union and died under mysterious circumstances two years later. Journalism, truth-telling, is a dangerous job. 

The Lost Year is also a novel about immigration and about connecting faraway places, times and family. Katherine Marsh weaves place, time and family together with spectacular skill. And she deftly ties the pandemic in there, too. 

I’m grateful that books like this are not only being written, but also being noticed. The Lost Year is a must-read for anyone concerned about current events … or past.

Chocolate Matters

Special occasions and chocolate go together like spring and puddles. I recently received some Polish, E. Wedel, chocolate from a Ukrainian student and appreciated learning a bit about the manufacturer’s war time history in Warsaw. It got me wondering about the histories of other chocolates. I found an interesting website about chocolate’s uses during the war.

Turns out it was not only good for morale, for bribes, for friendships, for energy … it was also a way to conceal lethal weapons. 

I prefer to focus on the sweet side of chocolate’s power and used it as such a couple of times in my novels. In Katherine Marsh's excellent new release, The Lost Year, which focuses on the Holodomor, her character, Mila, eats Soviet era Bumble Bear chocolates. 

Here are a few chocolate facts centered around the war.

Herschey’s was the main supplier of American chocolate during the Second World War. They created a ‘melt-proof’ chocolate for tropical battles.

Scho-ka-kola was the German brand of chocolate for the Wehrmacht. When visiting Riding Mountain National Park last summer, site of a former German POW camp, they had a rusted Scho-ka-kola tin on display.

Back in 1930s, the E. Wedel chocolate company offered its employees many benefits, including childcare. Later, splintered by war, by communism and a variety of owners, it continues to be a proud and recognizable Polish chocolate, with its motto: “…constantly changing to inspire joy in us and our clients".  

Perhaps Roschen, a chocolate factory in Kyiv, is currently supplying chocolate to Ukrainian soldiers. And would Russian soldiers be snacking on Alyonka from the Red October factory? Chocolate plays a role in war and soldiers might still be finding a brief reprieve from their hell in its bitter sweetness.

Hopefully, chocolate will also play a role in peace—which can’t come soon enough!  I’ve previously posted about the Peace by Chocolate company, formed recently in Canada by Syrian refugees. Chocolate makes the world a better taste. 

War Make-Up

Life Magazine, April, 1943

Here’s an interesting ad from the 1943 Life magazine I’ve been perusing. While I had heard of women painting black lines on the backs of their legs to mimic stockings, I didn’t realize that skin cream would go on first. Aren’t we women lucky nowadays to just pull on some jeans? Imagine having to put make-up on your legs before heading out. No make-up could cover the goosebumps in our frigid weather. 

I’ve been working on a book focused more on my dad’s past and inevitably that leads to music and to the dance floor. My dad’s dancing days ended along with the war. But at one time, his Luftwaffe uniform made him eye-candy for young German women. My dad’s first wife was a dancer, who liked to show off her shapely legs into her old age, always in a pair of red pumps. I wish I’d asked her about the leg make-up. 

The generation who experienced the Second World War is fading fast. And so are their stories. We forget how all-invasive those years were ... even if the battles were fought in Europe, the whole world was involved. 

Wartime Ads for Coffee

Nerman’s, a local secondhand bookstore, shut its doors last month and during the weeks leading up to the final closing, I explored some of its historic treasures. It’s a good thing I live on the other end of town because I could have spent too many hours in that dusty, musty place on Osborne. As it was, I got myself a nice stack of Second World War era magazines and a few memorable Nancy Drew books. 

Perusing a now eighty-year-old April 12, 1943 Life magazine I was struck by war ads. Whether it was about women preening themselves for their soldier, use of food rations, cigarettes, alcohol, rubber or good walking shoes, the ads give a great insight to life inside the States back when a world war completely overshadowed normal life.

Just a few weeks ago I blogged about the Kaffee und Kuchen ritual in my immigrant family and friends.  Coffee, of course, is a staple in many western homes. 

Nescafé was the coffee of choice when real ‘bean’ coffee wasn’t available and all week long, my dad—an avid coffee drinker—would only drink Nescafé.  It was the go-to brand for all the adults I knew. 

During the war, Nescafé—according to this ad in the Life magazine—was not available to civilians. It was all being sent to the Armed Forces. A history of how Nescafé served armies and then civilians in occupied Europe after the war is available on the Nescafé website. 

So the next time I line up for my latte, cappuccino or Americano, I might sip with more of an appreciation of living a rather privileged, entitled and self-indulgent life. I hope that good coffee is still being poured and sipped on Ukraine’s bloody eastern front. I never want to taste my coffee without tasting the gift of peace.  Ersatz coffee, made of chicory or dandelion roots might look like coffee, but it will always be a poor substitute for the aroma and jolt of real coffee! 

Canadian Authors and Ukrainian Memories

Canadian authors and Ukrainian memories come together in a new textbook released by Routledge this week. Very exciting (and scary!) to see my earlier books mentioned in a new academic release, Next- Generation Memory and Ukrainian Canadian Children’s Historical Fiction, The Seeds of Memory, by Dr. Mateusz Swietlicki, Assistant Professor of English Studies at University of Wrocław in Poland. 

Wrocław, known as Breslau until 1945, is a historic city on the Oder River in what was once known as Nieder-Silesien, or Lower Silesia. But its tranquil setting belies a violent past. Breslau, one of Hitler’s fortress cities, witnessed brutal fighting in the final months of the war. I can't help but think of today’s war and the destruction happening in Bakhmut. 

An old woman I used to visit in a local nursing home had lived in the area. In the final months of her life, as delirium took over more and more of her consciousness, she’d again be the fifteen-year-old teenager hiding in the woods of Lower Silesia, evading the Soviets, calling out to her parents. Once I sat helplessly with her for a whole hour, while she’d cry out, “Mama, wo bist du?”  (Mama, where are you?) What memories will those affected by today’s war have when they’re old?  Wars finally do end, but traumatic memories burrow deep inside a person, waiting for their chance to be relived.

Wrocław, Poland is an old University city with a youthful population. Not only is its town centre a UNESCO World Heritage site, more amazing, to me—a bookworm—is that in 2019 Wrocław was a UNESCO City of Literature.  How cool is that? I didn’t even know that they had such a thing. With a bit of googling, I discovered that Canada’s UNESCO city of literature is Quebec City, granted that privilege in 2017. What are the criteria, you ask? Check this link

For me, the thrill of having a textbook that refers to my mom’s story empowers me to keep researching, writing and sharing. My earlier books died premature deaths and I'm sad for that loss. The story of my mother’s kulak childhood and of collectivization was the beginning of my writing journey as I explored the source of my family’s homelessness and fracturing. Having found the story of the windmill and then losing it to unstable publishers still hurts and lesson learned! Having the kulak story mentioned in this academic text gives me courage to keep trying.

I’m grateful to this Polish academic who noticed The Kulak’s Daughter/Red Stone on Goodreads and sparked some life back into her. Even if her story’s no longer available in book form, at least there’s a conversation about her experiences of collectivization and the 1930 liquidation of the kulaks. In a world where truth is being manipulated by leaders like Putin, memories of those who lived through past atrocities matter ... more than ever.

I got my own copy of Dr. Swietlicki’s book earlier in the week and can’t wait to dive in. I’m sure I’ll be posting about it again as I peruse the other novels discussed alongside my own. 

Brain Storms

March 26th is Epilepsy Awareness Day. Three people in my immediate family have been diagnosed with the condition. All three lead normal lives—their seizures managed with medication and simple precautions to avoid triggers like flickering lights and stress (not always easy, to be sure!). Epilepsy, like near-sightedness, does not stop them from embracing life.  Such was not always the case.

Maxime Raynal (Wikipedia)

Back in the 1930s, in Nazi Germany, epilepsy was considered a disability and a disability meant forced sterilization—at the very least—and by 1939, it had the potential to be a death sentence under the Aktion T4 program

In Tainted Amber, I explored the impact of epilepsy on a young couple as they fell in love during the Nazi years. The Nazi ambition of a perfect society stigmatized disability and this included people with seizures. Fortunately, in 2023, 90 years after the Nuremberg Laws for the Prevention of Hereditary Disease were proclaimed, epileptics are largely integrated into our world. You might be sitting near an epileptic on the bus tomorrow, or have one teaching your kids, or cutting your hair. 

Neil Young deals with
epilepsy by avoiding crowds
Raph_PH (Wikipedia - CC)

To learn more about epilepsy, visit this website. And if you’re lucky enough to have an epileptic in your life, give them an extra hug and maybe wear purple on March 26th. Epileptics like Neil Young, Charles Dickens, and the singer Adele highlight the creativity that many people with epilepsy enjoy. Some might consider seizures a gift — a torrent of electrical activity in the brain—a true brain storm.

Manitoba has a volunteer-run advocacy group for families afffected by epilepsy.  Visit their website to learn more.  No more shame, no more stigma, no more institutionalization or sterilization. 

Kaffee und Kuchen

The ubiquitous coffee pot
I grew up around the culture of Kaffee und Kuchen. This important event usually happened on Sunday afternoons or on birthdays. It involved good, strongly brewed coffee, heavy cream (whipped, if possible) and an assortment of rich cakes, including fruit flans using whatever fruit was in season, with more whipped cream and the ever-present Streusselkuchen and Königskuchen. Other cakes might include Bienenstich, Honigkuchen or the decadent Schwarzwälderkirsch Torte. Readers of my novels might recognize the cakes and the table setting.

Perhaps it was a symptom of the after-war generation. Perhaps having survived the horrors of war, the simple pleasure of sitting around a table and gorging on food was a sort of heaven on earth. I don’t know. I do know that the coffee table Kaffeeklatsch was the highlight of the week for my parents and their fellow immigrant friends. 

Kaffee und Kuchen meant you had a home, a table, food, and people to share it with. Kaffee, after years of ground up dandelion root or ‘ErsatzKaffee was a totally appreciated luxury. It might be instant coffee with canned evaporated milk during the week, but for the Kaffee und Kuchen sessions, it had to be freshly ground ‘real’ coffee. 

Embroidered by my parents while on 
immigration ship in 1953 on Beaverbrae 
The table itself was not merely a flat platform on four legs. It was a stage showcasing a woman’s talents—starting with the tablecloth. I remember tablecloths elaborately embroidered with floral motifs and crocheted lace along the edges. I remember the handmade coasters, the crocheted cozy for the porcelain coffee pot, and the carefully chosen serviettes … often mismatched … but each uniquely beautiful. 

Then there were the dishes. Dishes for my mother and the women of her generation were status symbols like cars were for the men.  As a kid, I had my own favourite china teacup set from Mom's Sammeltassen collection. I felt surprisingly sad when that teacup disappeared in the shuffle of her final move. And yes, the teacups were for sipping coffee. 

I’m not sure if Kaffee und Kuchen culture is still going strong over in Germany. Here in Canada, as the war survivors pass away, many of their traditions are fading with them. But I have the porcelain coffee server to remind me. It's not all that useful anymore. But when I smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, I can often hear the Kaffee Klatsch ... as the survivors of war, homelessness, gulags and immigration indulge in the freedom of Sunday afternoon peace. 

For the Invisible Women

IMHO, Women’s Day should be Women’s Week. With such a diverse population, how can we possibly limit the gratitude and recognition into one day?

When I was growing up I never heard of Women’s Day … in March, yet? I only knew of Mother’s Day in May. (A day when we joined the blocks-long line-up to take my mom to the all-you-can-eat-for- 99 cents-buffet on the way home from church). I’ll admit, I didn’t give much thought to the women without children around who had to go home and cook their own lunches that day. 

It wasn’t until 2010 that the United Nations took up the cause and created themes to go with the annual event. This year's theme is #Embrace

English learners in Winnipeg

Equity. Before that, seems the day was a holiday celebrated mostly in communist countries. In fact, the first time I heard of it was from a Russian friend who was surprised at our low-key approach to the March celebration. 

This week, I honour the many immigrant women who are so often the energy behind a family move to a new country. They become invisible, behind the scenes, doing the grunt work, as their children flourish in the new environment. This is my shout-out to the women who do menial labour so their kids can prosper. To the women who become cut off from their old world and faced with many challenges here in the new one … with limited ability to improve their own lot as they ‘garden’ their offspring. (Okay, I’ll admit, it’s almost spring and gardening is on my mind).  

To the nameless, determined women who give so that others may prosper … I see you. Perhaps you have a face not unlike my own mother’s. Perhaps you are the stooped woman on the bus, hiding behind a hijab, or in a flowing sari, or wearing the mismatched, but colourful layers from the thrift shop. I celebrate your tenacity and your courage. 

Empathy not Sympathy

CCBC BookNews Winter 2022/23

I really connected with Spencer Miller’s article in CCBC’s (Canadian Children’s Book Centre) about empathy. In the article called, “Teaching Empathy Through Reading,” the middle grade teacher shares specific ways to build up a young person’s empathy. 

What is empathy?  Empathy according to Brené Brown (whom Miller quotes in this article): “…fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” To have empathy, means to understand. To understand, means to get under something, not over. To understand means to be humble, to crouch down and see the situation eye-to-eye. Sympathy, like pity, can lead to disrespect and moral judgment.

I wrote Tainted Amber in an attempt to understand what was happening in East Prussia, in Katya’s world, back in 1937. I tried to develop reader empathy for citizens in the Third Reich who were being manipulated by an authoritarian government (eerie parallels to current Russian situation). In Crow Stone I tried to develop empathy for people who, back in 1945, were possibly the most hated people on earth. 

As a volunteer, working one-on-one with newcomers to Canada, I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect, to support, and to try to understand. There’s nothing like a real person to help me understand the, often nuanced, joys and terrors of our tumultuous world. I have much to learn.

Empathy involves taking down the border that divides ‘me’ from ‘you.’ Empathy means you are you walking beside me like a friend. It can be emotionally exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, and always empowering. 

Making History 3-D

History can be a turn-off when it focuses only on dry facts, just like science is more than formulas and chemical compounds. Science matters when you walk through environmental disasters or live through a pandemic. So, too, history becomes more than dates of wars, lists of treaties or studies of revised maps when you walk through historical landscapes and meet characters who share the same human frailties we all experience. Through the power of imagination, readers experience sensory detail and emotion which allows them to have a visceral experience. 

Here is a list of ways that the power of fiction can merge the past into the present:

Field trips. Visit the scenes of massacres, of battles, of boat crossings. For example, I cycled down forest paths that my 1945 refugees would have travelled in Crow Stone. I walked the beaches of Tainted Amber.

Cycling in Kaliningrad Oblast
BIG Maps. There’s nothing like a visual map to pinpoint the scenes of a story. If the book doesn’t have a map, find one. Mark the places the novel’s characters are traveling. In Crow Stone there’s a map included, but don’t hesitate to find other maps.

SMALL Maps. How about visualizing the little places? A map of the house, of the bedroom, of the barrack? 

Photographs/drawings. A picture says a thousand words. But don't forget to ask, who was taking that picture? Why? What happened before or after the photo was taken? Where was the photo taken? Why does this particular photo matter? Who's not in the photo?

Recipes. One thing all humans, past and present, have in common is the need for food. Find out what food was available in those years and experiment with the ingredients. Did they drink tea or coffee? Soft drinks? 

Königsberge Klopse in Kaliningrad

. Musical tastes might change but music is always part of the human experience … whether to celebrate or to mourn. Find what would be part of the historical narrative for a particular book.

Clothes. We might get our clothes from an online retailer, local mall or thrift shop. But where did historical characters get their clothes? What were they wearing? How did they care for them?

Ambition. Many of us aspire to have careers, houses, children, cars, to travel or volunteer, to learn new languages or run a marathon. What sorts of ambitions would the characters in historical fiction be striving towards?

This is just a brief sampling of the ways that history can become livelier for readers. Some might call it research, I like to call it developing empathy.  One day, our lives today will also be history. Hopefully, no one will remember our lives as dull or boring. After all,  we too are living in historical times.

NEW Young Adult Books | Winter 2023 Top Grade Picks

CROW STONE FOR FREE!  49th Shelf's book give-away!  Go to their link for an opportunity
to receive your copy!

Check out my sidebar, where I share a discussion guide created to increase readers' understanding of the devastating consequences of war—not only for the soldiers fighting the battles—but for the women and children left behind ... even after peace treaties are signed. 

I'd be happy to visit your classrooms, online (or in-person in the Winnipeg area), to facilitate a conversation about the ugliness of war. 

About Birch Trees

When is a book about birch trees not a book about trees? When it’s sub-titled, "a Russian Reflection.”

Tom Jeffreys’ 2021 release is part history, part art study, part travel memoir, part meditation. It’s always political. Reading The White Birch has been an immersive journey through Russian history and landscape searching out the ubiquitous and photogenic white birch.

The book opens with a listing of the various types of birch trees that become actors in the book. It ends with an extensive bibliography for readers to further explore the complexities of Russia. 

Manitoba aspen 
Everything from landscape art of pre-communist times to Stalin-era posters to the lyrics of modern Pussy Riot music and the philosophy of Aleksandr Dugin, finds its way into this book about birch trees which explores the very soul of Russia. It’s a must-read if you appreciate the power of landscape to define a nation and want to get a better understanding of this complicated country. 

From rustic, poverty-stricken rural settlements to professionally designed urban parks, the author searches out the birch tree and always finds it. From oil paintings to poems to advertisements to songs, the birch tree claims its spot. A tree of nostalgia, of the feminine, it’s become a Russian cliché. 

I needed access to the internet to really appreciate the images mentioned in this book. I was constantly searching out the places, paintings and artists that the author mentions. This was not a fast read. Good for a long prairie winter. 

We don’t have a lot of birch trees in Manitoba. More aspen which looks quite similar but with a darker bark. Aspen forests are the first to shimmer green in the spring and pure amber in the fall.

But next time I spot a birch while out hiking, I’ll be reflecting on Russia. A white birch tree will never again be just a tree. 

P for Propaganda

A recent news link referred to Putin’s girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, who called propaganda as important as using Kalashnikovs, in the current war. Seriously? At least she’s naming it for what it is. Propaganda is a catch-all term for state sponsored lying. 

movie poster in public domain
Propaganda permeated the UFA (Nazi movie industry), as well. The most famous movie being Triumph of Will. We might laugh at the stupidity of these manipulative films, but they worked. Putin knows this.

Why is propaganda—blatant lying—so popular?  Why else would global corporations spend billions on advertising?  As a human race, we're a gullible lot.  In one Russian video clip, interviewing young residents from St. Petersburg, a woman artist said, “propaganda helps people lie to themselves.”   

Lying to one’s self is easier than ever with social media. We only ‘like’ what we follow and vice versa. If everyone is out to deceive us then who do we trust? I feel like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Media-literacy has never been more important. Critical thinking skills can’t be assumed. We need diverse points of view.

My parents’ generation grew up under the influence of Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. Germans, always ready to follow rules, were told they were the chosen people— superior to Slavs, Jews, Roma and coloured people. Treat humans like animals long enough and that lie becomes easier to believe.

Russians are now told that Ukraine is their enemy, overtaken by Nazi fascists. As ludicrous as this sounds to our western ears, Russians are losing touch with objective truth. Meanwhile, massive corporations control our media. Ads about liquor, cars, beauty products, holidays, etc. bombard our lives daily. 

Canada is a democracy, but this freedom of choice has a price. Our challenge is to be aware, skeptical, and engaged. It’s up to us to separate truth from propaganda.

Here are some tips to avoid being 'brain-washed' by propaganda.

1. Listen to/read/view multiple media outlets. Don't share something on social media if you can't verify the facts. 

2. Be aware of the distinction between mis-information (an error) as opposed to dis-information (a lie). 

3. Be aware of the power of slogans and symbols. (for example: Soviet: raised fist; Nazi: swastika; Russia: Z; clothing brands: the Nike swoosh)

Check out this Canadian government website for more information on how we can be aware of potential manipulation of facts during the current conflict in Ukraine.

Fragile Places

Border between Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia)
and Poland (NATO) in 2019
Yes! Grateful for a 5 star review from CM Review (Canadian Materials). Hope this will encourage readers to pick up a copy
of both Tainted Amber and Crow Stone. Understanding history helps us to understand the present global conflicts. 

I’ve blogged a lot about East Prussia, the eastern-most province of the former Third Reich that became Russia’s most western enclave. At about 15000 square kilometers, it’s a third of the size of Prince Edward Island. For more than seven decades it’s been not much more than a ghost town … de-populated of Germans, re-populated by transplanted Russians (a man from Kazakhstan lived in my uncle’s former house) and dotted with the ruins of war.  Today, as Putin rages about how German tanks are again confronting Russian ones, this area is a stark reminder that the conflicts of the past are not resolved.

Baltic Sunset near the Lithuanian/Russian border
Pillau—on the Vistula Lagoon—was once the desired Baltic port of refuge for civilian refugees like my mom. The Russians renamed it Baltiysk.  

As a Russian naval base, it’s in a restricted zone and shares (along with the capital city of Kaliningrad) the only year-round ice-free port on the Baltic available to the Russian military. Even when cycling near Baltiysk, along the beautiful, sandy Amber Coast, we could feel the ground rumbling and hear the dull explosions from military exercises.

Kaliningrad Oblast is surrounded by NATO countries… Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south and east. However, there’s a 65- kilometer-long border near the Polish town of Suwalki that makes the Baltic countries’ vulnerable. This short border is all that separates the three NATO countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from Belarus, Russia’s ally. I expect that we’ll hear more of these three places: Baltiysk, the Suwalki Gap, and Grodno (the closest Belarusian city) in the coming months. Will Kaliningrad/East Prussia ever heal?

For Holocaust Remembrance Day: Tainted Amber

The inscription on this stone reads: "One hardly can find any personal tomb. Together all fates here're joined."  (Yantarny, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia).

In Yantarny. Behind me:
 entrance to the "Anna" shaft

The Greeks thought amber was solidified sunshine, but back in January, 1945, the Amber Coast along the icy Baltic offered no warmth to thousands of emaciated women and children. 

10,000 Jewish women and children, former prisoners of the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig (now Gdańsk) were forced to march in the bitter cold northwards towards the town of Palmnicken (Now Yantarny).  

Open pit amber mining in Yantarny (former Palmnicken)

Only 3000 made it. They were to be stuffed into the “Anna” shaft, an unused shaft in the Palmnicken amber mine. But when the desperate SS had to change their plans as the Red Army came closer and closer, the Nazis forced the surviving prisoners into the Baltic Sea. Why waste ammunition when the sea could kill for them?

13 survived to tell their stories.

Desperate hands stretching out from the Baltic.

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I want to remember the power of story. It is our responsibility to remember and to share. When I explored the Yantarny coastline, it was warm, sunny and beautiful. Did the ghosts of those 2987 who were murdered still haunt the area? Perhaps. But it could only be sensed by those who knew the story. We need the stories!

Nearby, the amber museum was filled with history and beautiful art and the fossilized pine resin gleamed like gold. 

Tainted amber, indeed. Stories within light. 

For German readers, I recommend, Der Junge von her Bernsteinküste, a memoir by Martin Bergau

The beautiful, tainted, amber coast

Sleuthing out Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew—an American detective successfully marketed to young girls—has had a universal appeal. Not only has she sustained popularity over the decades, but also in other countries. However, names matter.  Nancy's name morphed to fit in with her readers.  Visit this webpage for some fascinating facts behind the international publications (or keep reading my post for the highlights).

In earliest German translations, Nancy’s called Susanne Langen.

In Sweden, Nancy’s called Kitty, while in the Netherlands, George gets called Kitty.

In Denmark, Nancy is Nancy, but George is Georgia.

The French call her Alice.

In Portugal, Nancy becomes Diana D. (Bess and George become Teresa and Joao, respectively). 

Never mind the names, what mattered was Nancy’s personality and that seems consistent throughout the earlier Grosset and Dunlop series released between 1962 and 1968 (#1-45) that I grew up reading. 

By the end of the first chapter of “The Ghost of Blackwood Hall” (#25)—the book I’m currently re-reading—Nancy’s outstanding character traits have been revealed. She’s shown as funny, kind, diplomatic, and displaying her father’s ‘courage and keen intelligence’. She’s also described as curious and as a risk-taker. 

Why do I care so much about Nancy Drew? She's been a shadowy star of a novel I'm working on and I like to read what my protagonists read. There's an even closer connection, as you might guess.

Growing up, I pretended to see her in my own mirror, hiding behind my immigrant name and awkward family. I wanted to be Nancy … clever, pretty, funny, kind, and curious. I’ll settle for curious. That's one trait Nancy, the cat and I all share along with the various risks that go with it. Nine lives, please!

Growing up in the sixties here in Canada, Nancy inspired many girls and I bet my uncomfortable immigrant experience is still experienced by modern-day refugees and newcomers. Getting lost in a book was a great way to explore the world and Nancy Drew was the magic mirror that transformed my childhood.

Now, as an adult and as an author myself, I'm curious about Carolyn Keene, the author name on all these hundreds of Nancy Drew books. That's a mystery I've yet to solve. So I guess I'll have to be a sleuth and post on this topic once again. 

Ghosts of Yester-year

Grateful to readers who put Crow Stone #1 on the Teen BestSeller list this week at McNally Robinson! Tainted Amber got included, too, at #5!  Thank you! 

Having experienced — through the researching and writing of my most recent book— some very dark times—and considering the current state of world politics—I’m needing some light reading. 

Guess where I’m finding it? In my old role model … the invincible Nancy Drew. I only wish I had her roadster to zoom away in. But truly, if certain smells and foods can you remind you of faraway or exotic places, so can books. The never-ending series of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries offered me escape from the challenges of childhood. With Nancy Drew as my role-model, uncovering secrets became a call to adventure. 

I’m not sure how this re-reading of my childhood favourite series will go. Perhaps it’s best not to disturb the memory. Perhaps the intrepid Nancy Drew will crumble to dust under my 2023 gaze.

Perhaps she should stay in the sixties, a childhood memory that haunts and inspires me to embrace mystery, to be independent and stubborn, and to sometimes drive a bit too fast.  But there’s only one way to find out. 

A Load of Guilt

John Boyne’s newest release is for adults. All the Broken Places follows up on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, released as YA in 2006.   It’s a complicated exploration about the guilt of Second World War bystanders (not perpetrators). Families broken apart by the Holocaust might see this novel as manipulative, because—like most novels—the reader develops understanding and empathy towards its protagonist. In this case, it’s Gretel, the daughter of a Nazi concentration camp commander and the older sister of Bruno, the protagonist of the earlier novel.

The novel alternates between past and present. Burdened by her father’s war crimes, Gretel’s condemned to a life of isolation and fear. A finely crafted book, nuanced and layered, it’s a true page-turner. My only criticism would be of David, one of Gretel’s love interests, who struck me as weak and undeveloped.

The poignant opening line bears repeating. “If every man is guilty of all the good he did not do, as Voltaire suggested, then I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that I am innocent of all the bad.” (p. 3)   Who wouldn't love to craft such an opening line?

We can’t choose our families, we can’t change our past. Guilt is a fascinating topic to explore and one I examine through my own writing. War novels offer much opportunity to explore the weight of regret, of guilt and of shame. 

Katya, fictional protagonist of my books, carries a heavy load of guilt throughout her life.  Guilt separates people from each other and that isolation then feeds the guilt. Through books, through the art of fiction, that powerful barrier can melt as people connect and empathize.

In one scene, Boyne’s character, 91-year-old Gretel, converses with nine-year-old Henry of contemporary London. Gretel tells the  avid young reader about the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s. “Why would anyone ban a book?”  he asks, and she replies, “Bad people. … They were afraid of them, you see. Frightened of ideas. Frightened of the truth.” (p. 359). 

Books are powerful.  Some people call novels ‘brotloße Kunst!’ (breadless art).  But they’re wrong, books are the bread that feeds our minds. 

Music as Propaganda

To get myself into the spirit of my upcoming book launch (Friday, January 13th, at McNally Robinson's, Grant Park and online), I’ve been listening to some music that inspired me while I researched and wrote Crow Stone. After all, next to the sense of smell and the taste of food, what can be more memorable than a little music? At the bottom of this post, I’ve including links to some evocative, war-inspired songs that the characters in Crow Stone might have been familiar with. 

Tango dance pattern:  Hyancinth: CC

Propaganda, whether through music, film, print, youth groups or schools, saturated German society under the Nazis. As the war faltered, the propaganda machine grew louder and more ubiquitous trying to bolster morale.  As Putin is currently discovering, an army with low morale is a losing army. 

Why does music have such power? Perhaps it’s for the same reason why good fiction has power. It's about emotion. It’s through the lens of emotion that we experience our world. 

Which reminds me, I’ve got a new word to guide me through 2023. It’s gratitude. Is gratitude an emotion? I know that it’s a lens that lets me see the world with hope and with positivity. 

Perhaps you might enjoy the music with me as I share my re-living, re-telling, re-visioning of the hell experienced in 1945 throughout parts of eastern Europe.  Seen through the lens of the doomed women and children inside the imploding Third Reich, it was a time when the propaganda of music made a mockery of the very lives it was trying to control. 

Schön ist die Nacht by Kurt Widmann (p. 28, Crow Stone)

Lili Marleen: originally by Lale Anderson (p. 28, Crow Stone)   or by Marlene Dietrich (p. 47, Crow Stone)

Zarah Leanders, 1931
Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen:  by Zarah Leanders (p. 8, Crow Stone)

There's a bit of Christmas music scattered throughout the book, too. It's a great irony that a culture that birthed the Second World War with its brutal atrocities, also birthed Silent Night and other beautiful Christmas songs.  But who wants to hear Christmas music in January?  Suffice it to say that Hitler and Silent Night were born in the shadows of the same Austrian mountains. 

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