Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cry out of Russia and other old stories

Finished reading another memoir, Cry Out of Russia, by Anna Fischer. This is a self-published work and I met the author last year at a geneology conference in Medicine Hat, Alberta. (The book is available through the University of North Dakota - Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.) Technology has made self-publishing such a great way to pass on family stories. I'd never considered it myself - but had I known how difficult a journey publishing was - I honestly admit I might have considered it. Of course I'm relieved that I didn't, yet there are definite advantages to self-publishing. The big one is that you have total control over the final product.

The negatives? Well, there are many disadvantages to self-publishing. The one I noticed in this book is the poor editing. But then, the writer is a woman in her eighties - so I'm not trying to be overly critical - I totally admire her for doing this. Like my mother, she probably only had a grade three or four education. Still, it would be so simple to have someone (a college student, perhaps) review the text for basic grammar and style. In this case a lot of the German words were misspelled. Why would someone go to the expense of self-publishing and not have the basics double-checked? Editing aside, I found Cry Out of Russia to be a heart-wrenching story of a woman's life during a time and in a place that has not had a lot of publicity. Anna never got to be a child and I'm amazed at how strong she continues to be. I understand now why the Germans from Russia have continued to support each other.

The photos in the book were an excellent addition - making the book feel like a family album. When I see the photos of her extended family - those that got shipped to Siberia - I think of my mother and her family. The tragedy of the Germans from Russia - like every tragedy - needs individual faces to be understood. The whole experience of reading this book felt like an intimate chat with an old woman, baring her soul. I'm so sorry, Anna, that your life was so very hard. Thank you for telling your story. You are a true survivor.

Which reminds me... I had an afternoon chat with a local man who didn't come out of the Soviet Union until 1972. He'd been separated from his family since 1944 when the German army retreated, taking the German civilians with them. This man now lives on a quiet street, living a quiet life - his neighbours have no idea what a life he's lived.

That's what I like about being a writer - we get to shine flashlights on the secrets - whether they're under the bed, old maps and photographs covered with cobwebs; in the proverbial closet, an old worn jacket, amongst the fine clothes; or in the old letters, refolded, stained, and written with now illegible and fading script. Then, as writers, we get to add our imaginations to these truths and create story. So in spite of feeling discouraged (yes) I've no choice but to continue exploring and writing. Curiosity hasn't killed this cat yet.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Musing about the Muse

I found this talk here by Elizabeth Gilbert really moving. (Is this where the tweet world comes in?) She caught my attention because I'd just heard the CBC interview her and I want to read her books.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Good news!

Good news!
The Kulak's Daughter got another nice review. Thank you, Allie!

Plus - a school, just south of the Winnipeg, bought a classroom set (27 copies) and is doing a social studies unit on Stalin and communism. Plus - they want me to come visit after they've done their unit. I am thrilled! They're grade six kids - a perfect age for this book. I am so looking forward to interacting with them. The teacher says they'll also be watching the documentary "Through the Red Gate." I checked it out and highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Three Books, Six Stories, One War

Just read three books - all historical fiction for young people, all about World War II, all by Canadian authors. AND, all three books are highly recommended reading. They taught me something new and made me want to be a grade six teacher all over again. Such powerful reading!

This Land We Call Home is by Alison Lohans (Pearson Education New Zealand, 2007)
Summer of Fire is by Karen Bass (Coteau Books, Regina, Saskatchewan, 2009)
Stolen Child is by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Scholastic Books Canada, 2010)

Really, really brief one sentence descriptions:
This Land We Call Home is about the internment of Japanese Americans during the war.
Summer of Fire is about the bombing of Hamburg.
Stolen Child is about the Lebensborn program during Nazi times.

What I really want to talk about is how the authors tackle history. All three books tell two stories in one. In Lohans' book, the narrration switches back and forth between Paula and Ken. Ken speaks in the first person and Paula speaks in the third. At first I admit to finding this confusing, but I caught on. Both stories happen in parallel time, but different locations. This book would be a good companion to the Canadian Japanese experience - so aptly told in Naomi's Road by Joy Kogawa.

In Bass's book, the two stories are from different times, but again, one story is in first person - a diary form - and the contemporary story is told in third person. The geographical setting is mostly the same for both stories in this book and I love the contemporary reality. The author's obviously familiar with Hamburg. (The diary portion reminds me of White Ribbon - a recent Golden Globe winner and also of the nonfiction book Life and Death in the Third Reich that I've recently read.) There's a connection with the Lebensborn program in the book and this brings me to the third of this little series here.

In Skrypuch's book, the two stories come from within the same character. The young girl has flashbacks and dreams that reveal a history she's repressed. The Lebensborn program is shocking and hasn't had a lot of publicity. As far as I'm aware, there's only been one other book on this disturbing subject. It's by Joan Wolfe, and called, Someone Named Eva The immigrant experience comes across loud and clear in Skrypuch's book. I remember the disappointment of eating yuchy, white "wonderbread" myself. My brother and I used to roll it up and make mini- snowballs (but I digress).

So, history told through diaries, through letters, through flashbacks, through great writing through the eyes of young characters. I don't recall history being so interesting when I went to school.

All three books also introduce foreign words and culture. I come away from these books with a spattering introduction to Japanese, German, and Ukrainian words. These books are simply must-reads!

And reading them together, like I have, has only intensified my appreciation of them.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hitler/Stalin

Just finished reading Life and Death in the Third Reich by Peter Fritzsche. It's the kind of book that reads like a horror story - only it's true. So I've been thinking about Hitler and Stalin - these monsters who got to have so much lethal power in the last century. Short and succinct article was posted in The Economist back in '99. Read it here.

My mom lived in both worlds and this has warped her world view. She's 'politically incorrect' about a few things. But I listen and try to understand where she's coming from. Fritzsche's book discusses how much the average German citizen knew about the 'final solution.'

We have to study history and we have to look in mirrors. But I'm sure looking forward to reading something happy for a change. Maybe I'll read the seed catalogue - that's always so refreshing in the dead of winter.