by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
OK–I admit it. I love everything Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch writes. Maybe it's because she writes to inform and touch, eloquently accomplishing both without teacher- or preacher-speak. Maybe it's because we're both Ukrainian, though not all her stories have a Ukrainian focus. Maybe it's just because she writes great books. I suspect it's the latter but I would never deny the others. I knew that I would appreciate Underground Soldier, as I did its prequels: Stolen Child (Scholastic Canada, 2010) and last year's Silver Birch Fiction award winner Making Bombs for Hitler (Scholastic Canada, 2012), reviewed here. See if I'm not right.
Stolen Child focused on Larissa, a young Ukrainian girl, who struggles to deal with confusing memories before her adoption by a Ukrainian family in Brantford. Her older sister, Lida, is the primary focus of Making Bombs for Hitler, as an enslaved Ostarbeiter taken by the Nazis. Another Ukrainian, Luka Barukovich, becomes an ally of Lida's, though his escape from the camp hospital leaves her wondering and worrying about his fate. Underground Soldier is Luka's story, from his escape to his desperate need to return to Kyiv (the largest city in Ukraine) and reconnect with his father who was taken to Siberia by the Soviets.
Sent to the camp hospital from whence most leave dead, Luka is encouraged by Lida to find a way out which he does, hidden in a truckload of dead bodies. His escape from the truck is just the beginning of a tortuous journey towards the mountains that he knows will link with the Ukrainian Carpathians and home. It's not surprising that, with the Nazis taking his mother and enslaving him while the Soviets arrested his father and oppressed the people of his homeland, Luka is cautious and suspicious of anyone he encounters on his journey. The enemy is everywhere and everyone. A Ukrainian-speaking German couple, Helmut and Margarete, are one of his first allies, though he has much to fear when he learns that both their sons are Nazis. As he continues his trek, Luka is reminded of the many incidents, both personal and national, that have shaped his distrust of both the Nazis and the Soviets. With the repeated and horrific losses of life and whole-scale destruction, Luka realizes Ukraine and its people are spoils of war, to take or destroy as need be.
His journey is helped when he meets Martina Chalupa, a Czech girl, whose skills in tracking, evading detection and survival are superior to his. After they are helped at an underground hospital of the Ukrainian Red Cross, Luka and Martina join the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) to help protect and defend against both the Soviet Red Army, the NKVD (the brutal Soviet law enforcement agency) and the Nazis, both from targeted attacks, death camps, and large-scale destruction. Even after Hitler commits suicide in 1945, UPA is still committed to fighting Stalin and his NKVD, as Luka is to finding his loved ones: his father, his mother and Lida.
Underground Soldier is not an action war story; it is a sobering tale of a people wedged between two evils with no "winning" possible. Those who seek the thrill of an enemy-laden, gun-fighting game between good guys and bad guys will not find it here. The horrors of war are evident as is the compulsion to save loved ones and survive. But Underground Soldier is a more involved story, obviously painfully researched by Marsha Skrypuch, to include all aspects of World War II and its aftermath as endured by Ukrainians such as Luka, Lida and Larissa and by so many others. The story revealed information that I could link to my own family's history, as I'm sure it will for many Ukrainians whose parents or grandparents lived through WWII in Ukraine and environs.
In this emotion-laden plot-driven story, Marsha Skrypuch will touch new readers to this trilogy and provide closure for those who've read Stolen Child and Making Bombs for Hitler. There is no happy ending for any of war's victims, but by providing clarifying details and authentic experiences of those whose stories are embedded here, Marsha Skrypuch honours both the past and the future of Ukrainians and other victims of World War II everywhere. Informing and touching, Underground Soldier is Marsha Skrypuch through and through.