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 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.

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