Book Review

The Memory Keeper Of Kyiv

The Memory Keeper of Kyiv

  • Author: Erin Litteken
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: May 16, 2022
  • Publisher: Boldwood Books

Thank you to NetGalley and Boldwood Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: grief, blood, death, violence, death of a child, mention of rape (off-page), starvation, suicide

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the 1930s, Stalin’s activists marched through the Soviet Union, espousing the greatness of collective farming. It was the first step in creating a man-made famine that, in Ukraine, stole almost 4 million lives. Inspired by the history the world forgot, and the Russian government denies, Erin Litteken reimagines their story.

In 1929, Katya is 16 years old, surrounded by family and in love with the boy next door. When Stalin’s activists arrive in her village, it’s just a few, a little pressure to join the collective. But soon neighbors disappear, those who speak out are never seen again and every new day is uncertain.

Resistance has a price, and as desperate hunger grips the countryside, survival seems more a dream than a possibility. But, even in the darkest times, love beckons.

Seventy years later, a young widow discovers her grandmother’s journal, one that will reveal the long-buried secrets of her family’s haunted past.

This is a story of the resilience of the human spirit, the love that sees us through our darkest hours and the true horror of what happened during the Holodomor.

“I never imagined the release of my novel on a past oppression of the Ukrainian people would coincide with such a parallel tragedy.” Erin Litteken

A share of proceeds will be donated to DEC’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

May we never forget, lest history repeat itself.

Last month, I had checked out some nonfiction books pertaining to Ukraine. And this book tells the story of the Holodomor, a man-made famine that was intended to decimate Ukraine. And while this is historical fiction, the author drew on her own family history to write this book. I appreciate that the author and publisher are donating a portion of the proceeds from this book to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, since the book happened to come out around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It echoes the past, and the Holodomor is an under recognized historical event.

The story is broken into two different parts — one tells the story of Katya, a young woman in Ukraine in the early 1930s, and the other follows Cassie, a young woman of Ukrainian descent in the early 2000s. I found myself more eager to read Katya’s story, finding out what happened to her and the family, although I knew that it wasn’t going to be a happy story. Cassie is a young widow, coping with the traumatic death of her husband and near-loss of her daughter Birdie, who no longer speaks. After more than a year of her grieving, she is asked to move in with her grandmother, who is having some issues living alone. 

Both of the women have sad stories, but I found that I connected more deeply with Katya’s character. She has a happy family, a blossoming romance with the boy next door, and takes joy in her work farming. But once the Soviets decide to force a policy of collectivization on the farmers in Ukraine, things start to change. Proud and independent farmers are slowly forced to give up their land and work as collective farmers. But collectivization wasn’t the only goal—Stalin had plans in motion to create a famine and kill off the Ukrainian people.

As we get deeper into Katya’s story, we see how the secret police and activists break these people down. Deportations, executions, terror, and starvation all broke these people down, and Katya is no exception. She was incredibly tough and smart, and her story broke my heart. However, running alongside is Cassie’s story, as she adjusts to living in a different state with her aging grandmother, who is struggling with memory loss and has resorted to old habits that are relatively strange. In addition, she finds notes and a journal written in Ukrainian, which she can’t read, so she winds up relying on an attractive neighbor to assist her. It felt strange to read about Cassie’s budding feelings for this man, while thinking of Katya’s heartbreaking story.

By the end, I was sobbing. The way that these two stories wove themselves together was beautiful and poignant, and humanizes a massive tragedy that isn’t commonly acknowledged. While the Ukrainian people recall the Holodomor, this event has little to no recognition around the world, and is noticeably denied by Russia to this day. It’s an important story, and incorporated beautiful depictions of Ukrainian culture and customs. This is a story that will stay with me for a long time, and while it isn’t necessarily easy to read, it tells an important story.

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