A Boy In Winter: A Novel
Author: Rachel Seiffert
Publisher: Pantheon Books, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 238 pages
Source: Personal Copy
For how long have we in the West wondered what it was like in the Ukraine in 1941, the early years of World War II and before during upheaval in Europe? That part of the world has largely been closed to us until the last few years. But as history unfolds, we are not especially surprised to hear of the enmity between the Ukraine and Russia. Certainly there is such history. Who was more hated by the people of Ukraine? Germany or Russia?
I wonder what day-to-day life in the Ukraine was like then. Yes, I know of Baba Yar? But where exactly was that? The foregoing explains some of the reasons as a reader, I was drawn to Rachel Seiffert’s book, a novel titled “A Boy In Winter”
The following quote sets the tone for this book. “Battle was fear and fury, but it was not confined to armies. It tore through fields and barns and houses, and slaughter didn’t only take the fighting men. It took all in its wake: the village women, the old and the lame, the children; all those with no flame or rifle, no reason for soldiers to heed them.” But soldiers did heed them. There were so many German soldiers doing nothing but terrorizing people. One can’t help but think if they had been deployed to the Russian front, the war might have ended differently. Of course, that is an obvious lesson.
The above quote not only sets tone, but showcases the skill of this author to communicate wisdom and setting through beautiful prose. Even more skilled is the manner in which she creates flesh and blood characters whose stories give a picture of Ukraine in 1941. The scene she writes of Ephraim penned in with fellow Jews, awaiting resettlement and worried for his two sons, missing since daybreak, was so immediate, this reader felt sick to my stomach, and not because I suspected what exactly was to come, but because the suspense, horror and injustice as communicated by Seiffert through her characters and descriptions literally sickened me.
Another character is Yasia, struggling to survive, as are they all, and hoping to find her lover and fetch him home. As the story progresses she shows great compassion for fellow sufferers and risks all for others, not her kin or her lover. Otto Pohl, a German Engineer faced with unfathomable choices, whose fate turns on the most unjust of circumstances. This author writes clearly with great caring and understanding of people in varying circumstances. Emotional depth and mercy are hallmarks of her story.
I found this novel highly absorbing and strongly recommend it for all readers. It is a sorrowful, yet beautiful story. For me, there is a belief that it will cause readers to stop and think about kindness, about who is our neighbor, and about how we face adversity.
The challenges these villagers faced are basic and real, especially in comparison to financial gains, taxes, leisure activities, and privilege that fill so many of our contemporary lives. Perhaps, it must be admitted that Sieffert’s characters were not so concerned about others, until unjust events smacked them so hard they could see the disintegration of their world. When that happened, they turned from their present survival tasks and actively cared for other people around them, with little thought to circumstances or eventual outcomes. Each found a moral compass and followed it.