Monday, September 1, 2014

UNDERGROUND SOLDIER by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch -- a review

UNDERGROUND SOLDIER by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

“The corpses around me provided an odd sort of comfort…”   The first sentence of this young people’s novel sets the scene.  This will not be a light easy story.

Caught in the middle of World War II, Luka is a young teenager in Kyiv. He is captured and shipped to Germany as an Ostarbeiter [eastern worker], a forced labourer in a munitions factory.  Luka escapes, under those corpses, and attempts to make his way back home to Kyiv to find his family.
The reader learns very much about survival, persistence, and a child’s determination to reach family and home.  Luka’s experiences are so detailed that one stops breathing along with him when he is again and again in danger of being discovered by this guard or that soldier.  He must make decisions that an adult would have difficulty with.  Luka grows up the hard way.  He is on a mission to find his parents and a friend, Lida, in the maelstrom of war, and risks everything to do so.

The reader learns so much through Luka’s experiences about history, warfare, medicine, pharmacology, and human relations.  Skrypuch is a meticulous researcher, and the reader learns about everything from dressing your wounds with fresh cow’s milk to knowing how to walk in the woods in another’s footprints to avoid detection.  The horrific history of Ukraine during the war and the battles against both the Nazis and the Soviets – and the unbelievable inhuman cruelty of both – are shown on a personal level.  The friendships are also there – of Luka and David, his Jewish friend in Kyiv, and of Luka and his escaped Czech trek-mate Martina.  Luka’s life in the UPA – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army is related in detail, and demonstrates the international make-up of this underground army fighting on two fronts with no external support other than the local population. 

A map of Central and Eastern Europe would have helped the reader envision the regions and distances Luka travels.   Even though this is a work of fiction, it is based on and inspired by the real experiences of Dr. Peter J. Potichnyj, a retired professor of political science.  History is not just what is in a textbook.  History is the accumulation of the lives of individual  people living through a particular time.

There is an Author's Note at the back which provides short information on several key historical events such as the Bykivnia massacre (an event, of so many in Ukraine, about which even most Ukrainians do not know).  

I found it difficult to read this book, and the other two in this series, but not because of the writing, which is excellent.  I wanted to keep reading each of the books, but could only do so in short segments.  The writer recreates the atmosphere and the situations of war so realistically that my heart and nerves could not take much at once.  All I could envision was the experience of my parents, young adults at the time, as forced labourers in Germany during the war.  Possibly someone with no connection to the war would find it less stressful to read.

Most of the children’s and young people’s books about World War II in Europe published so far have been about experiences of The Holocaust.   The Diary of Anne Frank is well-known, and is on most reading lists and in curricula.   The three companion books on World War II by Marsha Skrypuch should be required reading in schools along with Frank’s Diary.

Even though this is classified as "juvenile fiction", I recommend that adults read all three companion books.  Underground Soldier is the final book in the author's trilogy on young Ukrainians in World War II.  The first two are Stolen Child and Making Bombs for Hitler.  These do not necessarily have to be read in the order published, but the lives of the characters in the three books are intertwined.  Skrypuch has written 19 books, many award-winning, on topics that other authors have not approached.  Not only is she a fine writer, Skrypuch is a determined and dogged champion for the underdog and the topics avoided by the mainstream.

Regrettably, while the author’s other books are available in the USA, this and the companion books are not.  

Skrypuch’s deeply moving books in this series take us into the horrible world of war and its effect on ordinary people.  Regrettably, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine right now, there is no end to the eternal Ukrainian struggle for independence and peace -- and how this affects the nation and individuals.

UNDERGROUND SOLDIER by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.  Toronto:  Scholastic Canada, 2014.   ISBN 978-1-4431-2437-9  (pbk.)    ISBN 978-1-4431-2898-8 (html)

For more about Marsha Skrypuch:

Dr. Peter J. Potichnyj’s life is covered in  My Journey, parts 1 – 2, published in book 4 of Litopys UPA [Chronicle of the UPA].  Series “Events and People”, 2008.

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