Friday, June 10, 2022

Book Review: The Memory Keeper of Kyiv

By Jami Denison

Publishing is a business with a years-long trajectory, so when a book comes out with subject matter that coincides with current events, it feels propitious. Inspired by her great-grandmother’s story, Erin Litteken decided to write a novel based on her life in Ukraine before and after World War II. She had no idea the book would be published just as Ukraine fell into crisis once again. As the world admires the strength of the Ukrainian people, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv highlights the roots of that strength.

Litteken’s novel takes place in two timelines: The first, in 2004, centers on Cassie, a young widow whose four-year-old daughter has had selective mutism since surviving the car accident that took her father. Depressed and listless, Cassie agrees to move in with her elderly grandmother, who’s having some memory and ambulatory issues. Although Cassie and her mother Anna know that “Bobby” emigrated from Ukraine, the elderly woman has always been secretive about her early life. But knowing that the end is near, Bobby urges Cassie to read her journal, and to work with a neighbor, Nick, who is Cassie’s age and understands Ukrainian. 

As sparks fly between the young widow and the hunky neighbor, they learn the truth about Bobby’s harrowing early life. In 1929, Katya was 16, in love with the boy next door, a doting daughter and younger sister who worked on the family farm. But when Stalin’s men arrived, they insisted the local farmers join the collective and punished anyone who resisted. As the Russians take more and more from the Ukrainians, the impossible starts to unfold—starvation in the land of plenty. And help seems impossible.

As a novel, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv shares the same weakness as other books with the same alternating timelines format: The past was so horrible that the modern-day protagonist’s dilemma pales in comparison. The chapters that tell Katya’s story are so compelling that readers may end up skipping Cassie’s sections all together. Still, the theme of hope after tragedy ties the two sections together, making them both worth reading.

This story of cruelty and starvation was suppressed by the Soviets for decades. The Holodomor, as it came to be known, was a 1932-1933 genocide during which Stalin’s people declared all land the property of the government and ordered all Ukrainian citizens to work for the state in exchange for a slice of bread a day. It was an inconvenient truth when Stalin joined the Allies near the end of World War II. After the war, Stalin’s defenders continued to deny it; a New York Times reporter won a Pulitzer for his complimentary coverage of the dictator. “Fake news” is not a recent phenomenon. 

Litteken is a careful researcher, and she fleshes out this history in her detailed author’s note following the novel. She also mentions that she was originally motivated to write the story of how her great-grandmother and her family fled their Ukrainian village during World War II, but then learned of the Holodomor and knew that this story had to come first. It’s astonishing that the same family had to deal with so much misery, and I imagine Litteken’s next book will be just as compelling. 

As Ukrainian citizens continue to fight for their country’s sovereignty, they’ve gained admirers all over the world. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv reminds us that Ukrainians have been fighting these battles for over a century. 

Thanks to Boldwood Books for the book in exchange for an honest review. They have pledged a share of the book’s proceeds will be donated to DEC's Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

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