“The Memory Keeper of Kyiv” by Erin Litteken

I first met Erin Litteken as a member of a small critique group of women’s fiction writers. I was working on what I now call my “practice novel,” Hope, and Erin was working on the as yet untitled story of a young woman who survived the Holodomor, Stalin’s veiled attempt to eradicate the Ukranian people via starvation. That “work-in-progress” is now a published novel: The Memory Keeper of Kyiv.

In 1929, 16-year-old Katya Shevchenko lives in a small farming community near Kyiv, Ukraine with her father, mother, and sister, Alina. Their life is simple and modestly successful. The girls, typical adolescents, dream of husbands, babies, and a peaceful future.

Three years later, their world turns upside down when Joseph Stalin’s activists infiltrate the community, urging the people to join collectivism. The activists begin a reign of terror that will last for several years.

Stalin imposes rations, confiscates goods and property, and declares that all crops and livestock now belong to the state. The community is divided: those who support the communist belief, and those who resist it. Suddenly nothing and no one is safe. A once friendly neighbor, a childhood acquaintance, anyone can become the person who reports you to the Soviets. Families are torn apart, fathers and brothers “deported,” homes ransacked, innocent villagers slaughtered for no reason other than the greed of the Russian soldiers who hunt them.

Katya and her family choose to resist. Her father “disappears,” likely deported to Siberia. She and her sister marry brothers Kolya and Pavlo and eventually they crowd together into Katya’s family home. There is death, hunger, loss, grief. Each one of them clings to the hope of survival: one more step. One more morsel. One more day. As Katya’s family dwindles in size, she focuses on her sister’s child, Halya, determined to keep her alive.

Kalya’s story is intertwined with that of her granddaughter, Cassie who is struggling with her own nighmare: the loss of her husband in a tragic accident. She moves home to help care for Kalya–her “Bobby”–and discovers random bits of paper, words scrawled across a page in Ukrainian–a language Cassie doesn’t understand.

Knowing that her life is nearing an end, Katya makes the agonizing decision to at last share the story of her youth–a story she has been unable to voice for over seventy years. She gives her journal, started in 1932, to Cassie who enlists the aid of a neighbor to translate it. As the truth gradually comes out and the horror of Kalya’s youth is revealed, Cassie begins to make peace with her own past.

This is a powerful story in its own right. The most recent events in Ukraine make it ten times more powerful. I’m so excited that Erin’s book is a success–and you, dear reader, need to add it to your reading list.

*image source

May Book Recap

  • The Puppetmaster’s Daughter, Karla M. Jay
    • Another WWII novel. Good read ***** (5 stars)
  • Steal, James Patterson and Howard Roughan
    • Theft, manipulation, double-dealing. All in the interest of money.***
  • The Stone Circle, Elly Griffiths
    • Murder mystery! Intrigue! Suspense! ****
  • The List Keepers, Brandt Legg
    • Third (and last) of the Justar Journals series ****
  • I Came All This Way to Meet You, Jami Attenberg
    • Memoir… meh ***
  • She Named Me Wolf: Book One, Tenkara Smart
    • An abused boy with an “imaginary” friend who turns out to be more than he imagined.****
  • The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, Erin Litteken
    • (see above) *****
  • We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas
    • The power of this story can’t be put into words. My top recommendation from this month’s reading list. *****
  • One Hand on the Sink, Ken McCarthy
    • Not sure what prompted me to put this on my reading list, but I’m not sorry I did. An interesting, short read about an eight-year-sober alcoholic who tumbles off the sobriety wagon. ***
  • The Bastard Princess, G. Lawrence
    • Another historical novel by my new favorite Tudor history novelist (and she writes more than just Tudor-inspired novels!) *****

3 thoughts on ““The Memory Keeper of Kyiv” by Erin Litteken

  1. I liked I Came All This Way to Meet You. I read more like a novel than memoir, which I appreciate. I am not always a fan of memoir. The last quarter of the book is so good that I stayed there the longest. Beautiful writing that draws you into the writer’s world.


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