The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh

Happy Tuesday! In honor of The Lost Year's book birthday, I'm turning over my blog for the day to Katherine Marsh. Thank you, Katherine! Congratulations! 

One day in the early 1980s, I came home from school and found my grandma pacing the yard in front of her house, crying. Like most older people I knew, my grandma cried easily. But this was different. She was holding a letter in her hand.

My grandma’s name was Natasha and her house in Yonkers, New York was my house. My parents moved in with her when I was almost five. I grew up eating her borscht, bringing her the airmail letters that arrived from her sisters in Ukraine, and listening to her stories about her childhood there. In 1928, she left Ukraine by herself—just four years later, in 1932-1933, a terrible man-made famine, the Holodomor, would test her family and many others.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her, a half-century later.

My grandma was a toucher. She was barely five feet tall but with long arms and fingers and she was always reaching out to hug me, to smooth my hair, to stroke my cheek. She sneaked Marlboro Lights and tried to cover up the smell with Brach’s butterscotch hard candies, which she kept in a drawer and slipped me when my mom wasn’t looking. She had run a bar on East 10th Street in Manhattan and had a cabinet full of homemade cordials. She smelled like all these things, smoky and sweet. Her tears embarrassed me, but I never felt safer than in her arms.

“What happened?” I asked as she embraced me.

“My sister die,” she said in her heavily accented English.

She had misused the present tense; she never learned English properly. Her sister had died months ago. In those days it took that long, across an ocean and a wall and a metaphorical curtain, to share news. I hugged her back. But I had no siblings; more importantly, I was young. I didn’t yet understand the way people shed selves and some of those selves stay in different times and places, with loved ones they are always trying to get back to.

Why am I telling you this story?

Many of my own books, including most recently Nowhere Boy, seek to educate kids about history and to apply its lessons and complexities to the present moment. As an author, I always knew I wanted to write about the Holodomor, Stalinism and the lives of Ukrainian immigrants like my grandma. So, during the pandemic, I did.

My latest middle-grade book, The Lost Year, is the story of three cousins whose lives converge in 1932-1933: Nadiya, the daughter of a farmer in the Ukrainian countryside; Helen, the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant in East New York, Brooklyn; and Mila, the daughter of a Ukrainian Communist Party official in Kyiv. It’s both a mystery and a work of historical fiction, based in part on my own family history.

Like Nadiya, my grandma was born in a small village in the Ukrainian countryside; her sisters, brother and their families survived the Holodomor. Like Helen, my mother was the daughter of Ukrainian and Belarusian immigrants, and spent the first half of her childhood in East New York, Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Like Mila, I got to know communism firsthand. As a teenager, I travelled to the Soviet Union twice: once, as a high school exchange student at an elite math and physics boarding school in Moscow and once, as an American “peace ambassador” at a famous Communist youth camp in Crimea.

Mila, Nadiya and Helen’s story is framed by the tale of 13-year-old Matthew, stuck at home in New Jersey during the Covid-19 pandemic with his magazine editor mom and one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother, GG. With Matthew’s reporter father stuck in Paris and school closed, he channels his boredom, fear, and loneliness into his Nintendo Switch on which he plays endless hours of the quest game, The Legend of Zelda. (This may sound familiar if you had a tween or teen during the pandemic; I had both, plus my octogenarian mother.)

After a live action reenactment of Zelda goes dangerously awry, Matthew’s mom makes him help GG unpack her storage boxes. There, Matthew discovers a mysterious photograph that sends him on a real- life quest: convincing GG to share the story of her own childhood “lost year” in Soviet Ukraine during the Holodomor, which leads to a shocking family secret.

Although I finished The Lost Year before Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, by bringing light to this long-suppressed chapter of Ukrainian history, the story sheds important context on this moment. There are clear throughlines between Moscow’s actions during the Holodomor and its actions now. These include using food—including Ukrainian grain--as a political weapon; spreading dangerous disinformation; and violating basic human rights, including those of children. There is a personal throughline for me as well: Whereas my grandma worried about the safety and survival of her relatives in Ukraine during the Holodomor, I now worry about that of their descendants in the current war of Russian aggression. I last visited our relatives when we all met up n Kyiv in 2016. Luckily, the Internet makes keeping in touch with them now much easier than it was for my grandma and her siblings.

The Internet has made information more accessible to all of us, but it still can obscure the truth of what’s happening. As a journalist, most recently for The Washington Post magazine, I wrote The Lost Year to teach young readers about the importance of media literacy. The Holodomor serves up one of the most powerful case studies of how disinformation can distort our understanding of events and erroneously shape history.

The New York Times’s Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Soviet Union in 1932, relied heavily on a single source—namely, the Soviet government--when he reported in 1933 that people in Ukraine and other Soviet regions were “hungry but not starving.” Courageous professional and citizen reporters, including the Welsh political advisor Gareth Jones and the Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman, countered this false narrative by traveling without Soviet permission to Ukraine where they conducted oral interviews that revealed mass starvation and death. But the influential Duranty stuck to his version of events and even tried to discredit Jones. The Soviet government, meanwhile, suppressed any mention of the true history. For decades the enormous and preventable toll of the Holodomor—millions of Ukrainians starved to death after authorities requisitioned grain and blocked travel out of the region—remained a little-known footnote of Soviet and world history.

But not to Ukrainians, who quietly passed along stories of what they and their families suffered. Growing up with a Ukrainian grandma, I knew about the Holodomor, as did many Ukrainian-Americans. My grandma’s cousin Nastya, who had immigrated to America in 1933, was a survivor. Nastya rarely spoke about her experience but when she did, the details were horrifying—she described the eerie silence of the village after all the cats and dogs had been eaten. I wrote The Lost Year because in 2019, I couldn’t find a single middle grade book by an American author about what my grandma’s family had experienced.

The Holodomor also became a lens through which to view the way our own country has flirted with authoritarian impulses. These last years have been some of the most politically divisive in our country’s history and I found a sobering warning in how “us vs. them” thinking fractured and destroyed families and society in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

My own background also reflects complexities of identity: in addition to being a quarter Ukrainian, I am also a quarter Belarusian; my maternal grandparents attended and raised my mom in the Russian Orthodox church, but each had a Polish Catholic grandparent. My father’s side of the family are Eastern European Jews; what remains of my paternal grandfather’s shtetl is also in modern-day Belarus and we lost relatives in the Holocaust. My mixed background reflects the tragic history—political upheaval, genocide, war, famine--of what the historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands” and has made me wary of “us versus them” thinking. It’s also fed a life-long interest in the complicated ways people dealt—and continue to deal--with grief, trauma, and guilt.

These themes have only gained relevance as we begin to emerge from a pandemic where a million American lives were lost, many of them belonging to the most vulnerable, oppressed and overlooked. After the trauma of a cataclysmic event, how do we heal, how do we preserve this history in an honest but constructive way, how do we become better people? These are questions I wanted not so much to answer, but to ask.

But most of all, I wrote The Lost Year for my grandma. She was a small person physically and she spent her life fighting not to feel that way, to feel important, powerful, big—like her story mattered. She found some semblance of this through the success of her bar and the ability it gave her to provide for her family—she funded a substantial part of my college education though she had less than four years of schooling herself. But her American dream never entirely made up for the loss of her family and home, culture and country, especially during this last bloody century. I wanted to give voice to that longing for somewhere else, which is part of so many American immigrant lives, but makes immigrants no less American. In fact, I would argue that this duality—chasing the American dream while carrying a torch for someplace else—is the American story. We are many places and identities at once; this has always been our strength. When we seek to define ourselves as only one identity—white, Christian, etc-- we diminish ourselves. Russia is in the act of doing this now, doubling down on one narrow and reductive version of history and identity and brutally forcing it on its neighbor. This is a familiar tale among the historical empires of this region as well as of the world. But as the world grows more diverse and more connected, it’s harder to defend.

My grandma had her prejudices—all my grandparents did from their various identities and cultural and religious perspectives. But she loved me dearly and gave me the gift of her cultural heritage, her family, her memories, her cooking. It isn’t easy to make sense of a complicated world or identity, especially as a child. But love sure helps. And so do stories. Without giving anything away about The Lost Year (and please don’t spoil the ending!), this is the simple message of my book: Tell stories. Listen. Love.

Thank you, Katherine! -John Schu

Katherine Marsh is the Edgar Award-winning author of The Night Tourist, Nowhere Boy, The Twilight Prisoner, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars, and The Doors by the Staircase. Katherine grew up in New York and now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two children.

Borrow The Lost Year from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 


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