“A wartime sacrifice. A mother’s love. A hope that never dies”
- Book: The Child Of Ukraine (formerly published as “Motherland”)
- Location: Austria, Germany, Ukraine, United States (USA)
- Author: Tetyana Denford
In a personal message at the end of the book, but which I felt was more relevant for me to have read first, author Tetyana Denford, lets the reader know that the story surrounding her main protagonists, Julia and Henry, was inspired by that of her own grandparents, Yulia and Hironimus Rudnyckyj (Babchya and Dido), with parts of the book being fictionalized to link together certain big events, which were true.
These really are the bare, almost ‘spoiler free’ details of this story…
In a war ravaged Ukraine of 1941, it was almost impossible for me to relate to the fact that Julia and Maria’s parents, along with so many of their fellow countrymen, decide that evacuating their children (particularly their daughters), from their homeland, west across the border into the unknown of a Nazi German State, was more preferable than to have them remain, as the impending threat of occupation from the east by Russian forces, became a harsh reality. Both of their sons are already missing, presumed dead, so the need to protect their daughters, becomes even more urgent, despite Maria’s (the eldest of the two) frail and deteriorating health, as their family farm is a prime target for Stalin’s ruthless new regime.
At a stop-off in an Austrian refugee camp, Maria’s condition worsens, and she dies in her sister’s arms. A distraught, teenaged Julia is forced to grow-up quickly, if she is going to survive and when she reaches the German border camp at Neumarkt, whilst she is housed in conditions little better than those of the prisoners, she is set to work as a bookkeeper.
It is here that she meets Hironimus ‘Henry’ Rudnick, himself a Ukrainian refugee, now a German officer, who immediately recognises Julia as the sister of one of his friends. Although from a much wealthier background and against the odds, the two find they have plenty of things in common, so when the inevitable happens, it is no surprise that the two marry in secret, just before their daughter is born.
When the war finally comes to an end and the labour camps are closed down, Henry persuades a reluctant Julia, that they are not going to be safe by trying to find their way back home, so they should move onwards and upwards with their lives and emigrate to Australia.
Life for new immigrants on the other side of the world, is not the ‘milk and honey’ it was advertised to be, so when Henry’s long hours of back-breaking and slave-like toil in the sugar cane fields, combines with the amorous attentions of their bad-boy neighbour Iliya, the perfect storm develops, which threatens everything in Julia’s life. Hell definitely hath no fury like a woman scorned, when Iliya’s wife Elina gets her claws out and a usually mild mannered Henry, shows Julia a whole new and very harsh side to his personality, when he lays her choices on the line and tells her to make her mind up.
The added dilemma of a natural disaster of epic proportions, means that Julia opts for self-preservation and keeping her daughter Slava, by her side. Then, just to turn the screw a little tighter, Henry announces that a better lifestyle awaits them in the USA, leaving Julia to abandon all hope for a future reconciliation of the second family, she must once again leave behind.
Life in America turns out to be the making of Henry and Julia, who settle into a new, much calmer and more caring way of life, resigned to Slava being their only child together. The ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ which still plague Julia from time to time, become softened and blurred with time, although she doesn’t forget what she was forced to leave behind and never stops blaming herself. However, when Henry is taken from Julia all too soon, a phone call from out of the blue and a voice which Julia never thought to hear again, stuns her, turning her world upside down all over again. When a terrible truth is told, she is forced to confront and confess a past to Slava, which her daughter cannot remember, and which has always been kept from her. Julia underestimates the acceptance and resilience of modern youth and matters are taken out of her hands by a daughter who loves her and strangers for whom the truth means the opening of a whole new chapter in their lives.
It is Slava’s daughter Lyuba, who decides to set Julia’s record straight, remove the stigma of shame from an act committed more than half a century ago, by highlighting her grandmother’s loyalty and love for all her family; and her ability to forgive those who had wronged her and deprived Henry and herself, of the one thing that could never be.
In such a monumentally important, character rich, epic family saga storyline such as this, where fact and fiction are so closely linked, I really worry about any comments I write sounding in any way disingenuous to the author or her family, particularly as Tetyana features extracts from her own story, towards the book’s finale. I think I worked out which were the ‘big things’ Tetyana referred to in her letter, however I had so many questions by the end that I would have treasured a chat with Julia (Yulia) herself, although I am certain that I would fall far short of her tremendous strength of character and resilience, her loyalty to her husband and family, and her determination to try and right the wrongs of the past, no matter how painful the consequences.
Add to that how the parallels of 1941, resonate so loudly with those of today’s 2022 war in Ukraine, with the atrocities heaped upon the portion of the population least able to resist and unable to evacuate the taken areas, and my moral dilemma is only multiplied exponentially.
In fairness, WWII was only the catalyst for much of this storyline, although the stories of immigrant displacement, secrets which were taken to the grave, love, loss, motherhood and most importantly, hope, were indelibly imprinted upon the very souls of so many future generations, with their lasting effects continuing to have repercussions into the present day.
This wonderfully evocative and tenderly poignant, multi-layered storyline, is highly textured and so very fluently written, presented in well-signposted chapters, which draws the story to its inexorable and cathartic conclusion.
The story has a large physical footprint, stretching from Ukraine to Germany, on to Australia ending up in the USA, with the vividly descriptive and beautifully nuanced quality of the dialogue, offering a continually genuine sense of the changing times and landscapes; enough to satisfy my most avid ‘armchair traveller’ tendencies.
There is quite a large cast of characters, all emotionally complex, raw and passionate, often a little unreliable and volatile. However, whilst they could be difficult to relate to or invest in, as often the family dynamics and synergy didn’t welcome outside intrusion, I found them all to be relatively genuine, believable and authentic. All the main players, who have been well developed in their roles, were given a loud and clear voice with which to tell their story, together with an inner strength and determination to fulfil their destinies and set the records straight for future generations.
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This was another of those “one of a kind” stories, which had the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next, so I can only recommend that you read The Child Of Ukraine for yourself and see where your journey leads you!