Monday, May 7, 2018

The War Below by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

The novel Making Bombs for Hitler is the story of Lida Ferezuk, who was taken from her home in the Ukraine, put in a cattle car and sent to a slave labor camp, where she eventually ended up making bombs for the Nazis. In that same cattle car was Luka Barukovich, also taken from his home in Kyiv, Ukraine. Lida and Luka become friends and watch out for each other in the slave labor camp, but when the opportunity for escape arises, Luka decides to risk it at Lida's urging.

The War Below begins in 1943 with Luka hiding in a truckload of corpses, hoping to escape the camp, return to his home in Kyiv and find his father, who had been taken away by the Nazis and sent to Siberia. Now, wounded, wearing a hospital gown and bare foot, Luka jumps from the truck about two kilometers from the camp, in the rain, and finds his way to what appears to be an abandoned farm. The farm, however, is the home of Helmut and Margarete, an elderly couple who feed and clothe Luka, and urge him to remain with them until spring. But when he discovers that their son is a power-hungry officer from the camp he has just escaped, Luka decides it is time to leave.

By now, the Nazis are losing the war, and there is constant bombing around Luka by the British and Americans. Sticking to wooded areas, Luka meets Martina Chalupa, a girl who has been living and surviving in the woods for a while. The two decide to continue on together, and between Luka's knowledge of natural medicines and remedies (thanks to his pharmacist father) and Martina's survival skills, the two do well together.

Eventually, Luka and Martina run into members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an underground (literally) resistance group. Both Luka and Martina decide to stay and fight with the resistance, Luka as a medical helper and Martina as a soldier. Luka stays with the resistance until the end of the war in 1945, when he is told to head west rather than east. Stalin has decided that if Russians and Ukrainians were captured by the Nazis, put to work and survived, they are traitors to the Soviet Union and are put to death.

Eventually, Luka makes his way to a displaced persons camp, where he begins searching for  his mother and his friend Lida, in the hope that they both survived the war. Eventually reunited with Lida in the DP camp, he is lured away again with the promise that his father has been found and is living in Kyiv. Anxious to see him, Luka boards a truck with other Ukrainians returning home. It very shortly turns out that they have been duped by NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and the plan is to kill them as traitors. But if you have read Making Bombs for Hitler, you pretty much know how Luka's story does not end on that truck.

The War Below, originally published under the name Underground Soldier, is every bit as solid a novel as Making Bombs for Hitler. Both books have been reissued, and they are part of a trilogy. The third book, called Stolen Child, is the story of what happens to Lida's younger sister Larissa, and, I am sorry to say, it is the only one I haven't read yet, but I am hoping it will be reissued as well.

Luka is a strong, resourceful, compassionate character, though he is also racked with guilt at not being able to save his friend David, killed in the Nazi massacre of Babi Yar in 1941, and at leaving Lida behind when he escaped the labor camp, and at not being able to help Martina more. Skrypuch very cleverly incorporates background information about what Luka experienced in Kyiv when the Nazis arrived, so that the reader really understands what is going on for him.

When I wrote about Making Bombs for Hitler, I said it was a real eye-opener for me in terms of what went on in the Nazi slave labor camps. I had the same reaction with The War Below. I haven't really read much about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), and how they operated and found it fascinating. Yes, I've written about other resistance groups, but I find they are all unique (see Uncle Misha's Partisans by Yuri Suhl, also about the Ukrainian resistance)

The novel is narrated in the first person by Luka, and it is a captivating novel. From the moment I began reading, I couldn't put it down. And, although there is a lot of overlap with Making Bombs for Hitler, repeating information you might already know, it really doesn't take away from the story at all, but also means this can be read as a stand alone novel.

Skypuch is not afraid to confront and interrogate the cruelties of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, and I again feel that I should warn readers that there are some graphic descriptions that might not be suitable for some sensitive readers. But, I also have to say that the overall story is one that shouldn't be missed, mostly because the Eastern Front is not one most of us are terribly familiar with, though that is beginning to change.

Be sure to read the Author's Note at the back of the book, and you might also find the brief description of the certain historical events included in The War Below to be helpful.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book is an ARC received from the publisher, Scholastic Press.

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