The Lost Year: A Survival Story of the Ukranian Famine
Published January 17, 2023
About The Lost Year
From the author of Nowhere Boy – called “a resistance novel for our times” by The New York Times – comes a brilliant middle-grade survival story that traces a harrowing family secret back to the Holodomor, a terrible famine that devastated Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s.
Thirteen-year-old Matthew is miserable. His journalist dad is stuck overseas indefinitely, and his mom has moved in his one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother to ride out the pandemic, adding to his stress and isolation.
But when Matthew finds a tattered black-and-white photo in his great-grandmother’s belongings, he discovers a clue to a hidden chapter of her past, one that will lead to a life-shattering family secret. Set in alternating timelines that connect the present-day to the 1930s and the US to the USSR, Katherine Marsh’s latest novel sheds fresh light on the Holodomor – the horrific famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, and which the Soviet government covered up for decades.
An incredibly timely, page-turning story of family, survival, and sacrifice, inspired by Marsh’s own family history, The Lost Year is perfect for fans of Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray and Alan Gratz’s Refugee.
Stories with alternating timelines are hit or miss for me, but Katherine Marsh is an author whose books have been on my To Be Read list for a long time. That plus the Kyiv setting and rarely explored place/time in history made this book too good to pass up.
It took me a couple chapters to feel like I found my footing in the story. Matthew, our present-day main character, is chafing at the isolation and boredom of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Because his family cares for his 100-year-old great grandmother, they stay isolated from the community.
He ends up tasked with helping his great grandmother (GG) sort through some old papers and files. Through this, he discovers a family history he’d known nothing about. Two point-of-view characters from the past, cousins Mila and Helen, reveal the story of the Holodomor, the terrible famine that devastated Soviet Ukraine.
From there, I felt like the pacing of the story picked up, and the connections between the past and present helped to fuel the forward momentum of the story. Matthew’s dad is a journalist reporting on the pandemic from France. He and Matthew discuss the (awful) power of misinformation. They talk about how people can continue to believe falsehoods even as their friends and neighbors experience tragedy.
Just as in the past, Mila at first refuses to believe that her country is experiencing a preventable famine that has already killed thousands.
I thought the way Matthew’s relationship with GG develops and his budding interest in history and writing were really cool elements of the story. I loved that even in that, he shared a connection with Helen, his great-great-great-aunt(??) from the 1930s.
Altogether, I felt like the past and present timeline intersected at just the right moments. It shared themes that built on each other in powerful ways. I loved the introduction to a part of history that isn’t frequently explored, and the connection to the battle against misinformation we still face today.
Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.
Helen was born in America after her father emigrated here from Ukraine as a young man. Mila and Nadiya are Ukrainian.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
References to celebrating Christian Orthodox holidays. Reference to the fact that religion has been outlawed in Soviet Ukraine.
Someone delivers a sealed envelope containing live lice to a family in an attempt to infect them with Typhus. Boys attack another boy on the playground. An older girl fights them off. Some descriptions of starvation and death. References to a man being shot.
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