It Happened in Moscow (review)

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It-Happened-in-Moscow0001It Happened in Moscow: A Memoir of Discovery by Maureen Klassen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It Happened In Moscow begins with a surprise phone call to Herb and Maureen Klassen’s Moscow apartment in 1993. That call opened a Pandora’s box of secrets.

Herb’s parents (C.F. and Mary Klassen) had immigrated from Russia to Canada in 1928 in the nick of time, just before the doors to exit Stalin’s Communist Russia slammed shut. Though Mary’s children knew that she was a divorcée at the time she married C.F., she rarely spoke of her early life and never mentioned her 10-year first marriage. Even Harold (her son by that marriage) only found out about his birth father at his 16th birthday when C.F. and Mary sat him down to reveal the truth. Both C.F. and Mary had since died, so many questions about Mary remained unanswered.

Now the female voice on the other end of that phone call claimed she was Harold’s younger sister Erika.

If this was indeed so, could Erika hold answers to the mystery of Mary’s first marriage? Did she know what had happened to Mary’s first husband (and Harold’s father)? Could she shed light on how an entire generation of Russian Mennonites had fared during that period in Russia?

It Happened in Moscow is memoir—the unfolding of a fascinating family discovery through Maureen Klassen’s eyes. In 1993 Maureen and Herb Klassen were working for Mennonite organizations in Moscow and were fluent in Russian and German. These things made them the perfect recipients for the information that Erika had gleaned in her search for family. Via Erika, the family learned the fate of Jacob (Mary’s first husband) and thousands of Mennonites who were hindered from or chose not to immigrate from Soviet Russia.

Maureen Klassen’s charitable depiction of the two main players in this tale (Mary and Erika) make this an uplifting and pleasurable story to read. Historically, the way it shines a light on years of religious repression under the Communists makes it an integral piece of the Mennonite puzzle. It is also a testimony to God’s faithfulness through generations.

If you’re interested in Mennonite history or even just enjoy a well-crafted memoir with lots of human interest delivered in cultural detail with historical accuracy, you’ll love this book.

(My sister-in-law who, with my brother, lived for a time in Mary’s “glasshouse” in Clearbrook B.C., lent me this book.)

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Other Side of the River (review)

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other side of the riverOther Side of the River by Janice L. Dick.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens have been sweethearts for almost as long as they can remember. Luise expects they will marry soon. But the spring of 1926 is not a time life goes along according to expectation for the lovers or anyone else in the Mennonite village of Alexandrovka, part of the Slovgorod Colony in Western Siberia.

As the Soviet officials begin to interfere increasingly in the life of the enterprising farmers and craftspeople, demanding ever more tax and confiscating machinery and livestock, many villagers decide it’s time to leave. While some are allowed to emigrate to America, Luise’s chronically ill stepmother fails to pass her medical exam. So the family ends up planning to join others on a long train ride east. There is farmland and they have official permits to settle near the border of China on the banks of the Amur River.

Meanwhile a winter of hard work up north for Daniel separates the lovers. He returns shortly before her family is set to leave and Luise makes peace with the fact that she will be apart from her family when she and Daniel settle as newlyweds in the farmhouse Daniel has been building.

Of course, that doesn’t work out quite as planned either in Janice L. Dick’s Mennonite historical Other Side of the River. It’s a story through which we experience the day to day life of these God-fearing, peace-loving and industrious people during a time in Russian history when expressions of faith were not allowed, personal initiative was frowned on, and even speaking German could be cause for arrest.

Lovable and hated characters populate the pages with Luise’s great-aunt Tante Manya taking the prize as my favourite, Senior Major Leonard Dubrowsky and Ivan Mironenko tied for the ones I most disliked and feared. The way Dick portrays the everyday circumstances, struggles, and growth of main characters is realistic and kept me right there, experiencing their challenges with them.

The period and setting are depicted in satisfying detail. I loved all the homey touches—the roasted zwieback and other home baking, the Germanisms like “Nah jah,” and Luise’s and Daniel’s close-knit, intergenerational families.

The story, though lengthy, had enough twists and turns that it rarely sagged. The only time it felt a bit draggy was very near the end, but then it picked up again to the harrowing finish.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book—both the day-to-day life of its characters and the big story aspect of it—for I too am descended from them, a Mennonite, not from those that stayed in Russia, but from forbears that emigrated to North America before Communism and the era of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the faith of these people through testing was an inspiration. This book left me with a great appreciation of the fire-proved faith of my ancestors.

Apparently Dick is working on a sequel (according to this Blog Talk Radio interview). I hope so. I’ll definitely pick it up when it comes out!

Read Chapter One of Other Side of the River.

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Life Behind the Wall (review)

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Life Behind the Wall - Robert ElmerLife Behind the Wall: Candy Bombers, Beetle Bunker, and Smuggler’s Treasure by Robert Elmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life Behind the Wall is a collection of three novella-length stories for the YA crowd. Each is set in part of Berlin in a different time period between 1948 and 1989.

Book One, Candy Bomber, begins in the summer of 1948. Erich Becker, a 13-year-old Berlin resident, hates the Americans whose bombs wrecked his city and killed his father. He regularly prowls Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, sneaking into U.S. cargo planes in search of food for his hungry mother and grandmother. He meets U.S. soldier DeWitt who is a journalist, befriends Erich, and writes a story about the hungry children of Berlin. He comes around to Erich’s house with bags of treats like canned peaches and takes Erich and his cousin Katarina up in his plane to do some candy drops over Berlin neighborhoods.

Soon it becomes clear that DeWitt’s interest is in more than Erich. He wants to marry Erich’s mother and move the family to the States. Will Erich be able to forgive the Americans for what he holds against them?

Book Two, Beetle Bunker, begins in 1961. Its main character, 13-year-old Sabine, is a polio survivor who hobbles around on crutches. She lives with her mother, grandmother (Oma Poldi Becker), older brother Erich (from book one), Onkel Heinz, and Tante Gertrud in Oma’s crowded flat in East Berlin.

In this book we see the Berlin wall erected and are part of a daring tunneling attempt to escape from the East to West sectors of the city.

Book Three, Smuggler’s Treasure, begins in 1989. Liesl, the 13-year-old daughter of Sabine and Willi (from book two), lives in West Berlin. She tries to act cool the day she and mother are stopped at the checkpoint and thoroughly questioned on their way to visit Uncle Erich who still lives in the Communist side of the city. Mother and Uncle Erich are most upset when they find she has stuffed her stockings and clothes with slim Bibles. She gets into more trouble when she digs into the family history while researching for a school project and still more when she joins some older kids in a protest at the wall.

This part of the story sees the Berlin Wall come down and also reveals the mysteries surrounding Sabine’s father (Liesl’s grandfather).

These stories offer a great experience of another time in history. They show firsthand the poverty, bravery, resilience, and resourcefulness of the people of East and West Berlin during the Cold War era. They are also an example of how the divided city affected families.

The setting seems realistic with its atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. Characters must be careful not to be seen with the wrong people or overheard saying the wrong things because they don’t know who to trust and who might be snitching on them to the authorities. Chapter numbers in German and lots of other German words and expressions sprinkled throughout also give a feeling of authenticity to these stories.

None of the main character kids in these books are content to sit around. The stories are fast-paced and filled with adventure and danger. The age of each of the heroes (13) tells us that these books will appeal to tweens and early teens.

The end of Book One has a “How It Really Happened” section that explains which events in that story actually happened. All the books conclude with a set of “Questions for Further Study” designed to deepen and broaden the reading experience for individuals or groups.

As well as giving YA readers three interesting and fun stories, this book would be excellent supplementary reading for home schoolers and Christian school classes doing a study of the Cold War period (all three books are written from a Christian point-of-view).

I received Life Behind The Wall as a gift from the publisher (Zondervan-Zonderkidz) for the purpose of writing a review.

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