THE STORY BEHIND THE BOOK
by Valya Dudycz Lupescu
When I was a child, my parents took turns reading stories to me before bedtime. I’ve wanted to be a writer since that first moment sitting under a pink patchwork blanket with my little sister, my mother’s voice creating a new world in my mind’s eye. I knew then that words were magic, that stories could transform ordinary reality, if only for a few hours.
As I grew older, I discovered that I had at my disposal a wealth of new stories, tales unwritten in books. I was introduced to an oral tradition by my grandparents, who would eagerly share stories from their own childhood in Western Ukraine. Many of my visits with my grandparents after Ukrainian school on Saturdays would consist of fresh potato varenyky, rye bread and butter, and folk tales passed down for generations.
My novel is fiction, but I drew from their stories and the tales I heard from other Ukrainian American elders. While many were eager to share anecdotes from their youth and stories from home, it has only been in the last decade that these elders have begun to speak out about their experiences during World War II. Fear kept many of their voices silent for over half a century.
Only after Ukraine achieved independence on August 24, 1991, did some began to feel safe enough to talk about their experiences. They began to open up the doors to the past; doors that remained tightly sealed for over 50 years. Their trend of self-revelation and a reclaiming of the past were my inspiration.
My novel is written from Nadya Lysenko’s perspective, who was a young woman during WWII. Hers is a woman’s experience of war and sacrifice, a story of revelation and resolution. Nadya has secrets that she never shared with her husband or family. Hers is a past ridden with guilt and regret. Yet Nadya realizes that if she dies without disclosing the secrets of her youth, her memories will die with her. Only by sharing the stories of her family and friends can she allow them to live on in the hearts of her children and grandchildren. Nadya chooses to remain silent…but sometimes the Universe has a different plan.
I brought to this novel my love of mythology and appreciation of folklore. The Ukrainian people have a rich cultural heritage that serves as the backdrop for Nadya’s story. Thus it also became a story about myth, both cultural and personal. The mythic qualities create a sense of magic realism in the story, for Nadya’s daily reality is rich in old superstitions and traditions. She still tosses the first crumb of bread into the stove for the hearth spirits and knocks on woods to avoid tempting fate. In her world, dreams can come true, ghosts do whisper in the night, and a fortuneteller’s cards can predict the future.
The relationship of humanity with nature is also critical in the novel. It is not a supernatural experience; rather it is a hyper-natural reality. The Divine is present in the world, and everything is interconnected. Ancient Ukrainian people believed that the forces in the spiritual world affect human beings and their relationships. Even after Christianity was brought to Ukraine in the 10th century, the Old Ways still survived alongside the new religion. These traditions were filtered into the holidays and remained a part of everyday life. Many survived the immigration to America and are still a part of Ukrainian American culture.
To this day I don’t allow whistling in the house for fear of attracting malevolent spirits, and I light candles along with my prayers. I hope to show that there is wisdom and beauty in the old ways and in the old stories. We have much to learn from them and from the elders in our community who are the trustees of this wisdom.
I wrote this book to honor my grandmothers and all women who have lived through war and lost themselves in the struggle to survive. Too often they have been silenced, their stories unrecorded in the annals of history. It is my hope that this novel speaks with their voices, preserves their legacy, and reveals the power of stories—to remind, to heal, to connect, to teach, and to transform.