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! 

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