Had I not read Erin Litteken’s bio prior to reading her debut novel, I have no doubt it would have still been painfully and poignantly obvious that this story has personal roots. The depth found here is just something that can’t be taught; it has a connection that you can curate but not create, and has a heart that spins a tragic story into hope. Simply put, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv is powerful, inspiring, heart wrenching, and as near perfection as they come.
Alternating between 1930’s Ukraine and early 2000s United States, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv brings together four generations of a family who never realized how little they knew about themselves, and each other.
In 2004, 31 year old Cassie is living in Wisconsin and failing to put her life back together after the tragic death of her husband the previous year. Her five year old daughter Birdie hasn’t spoken a word in 15 months, lives in too small pajamas, and writer Cassie’s laptop sits buried under a pile of who knows what. At the urging of her mother Anna, she returns home to Illinois to help her aging grandmother Bobby, whose life before Anna the family knows surprisingly little about.
In 1929, 16 year old Katya is living a happy life in her small Ukrainian village; her family’s farm is thriving, and she is going to marry her beloved boy next door. Over the next five years, Stalin’s collectivism policies transform from an annoyance into an epic and tragic famine, and Kayta’s world shatters piece by piece. The loss and hardships she endures will shape the rest of her life, and for seventy years she stays silent. Through a journal she has kept since her youth and a special connection with great-granddaughter Birdie, she finally breaks her silence, allowing her to find the peace that has eluded her, and helping her granddaughter come to terms with her own grief.
Drawing on personal family stories, oral histories and clearly deep research, Erin Litteken transports you to a dark period in history that is tragically too little known. Daily life in Katya’s Old World in sprinkled with enough detail to let you see what she sees, without sinking into the mundane; I want to sit in Katya’s kitchen while her mother cooks varenyky, peer from the barnloft as Tato tends to the animals, and enjoy the simplicity of walking to the next farm to steal a kiss from Pavlo. On the other side, you can feel in your bones when she lies starving and shivering on the bed she has always shared with someone she loves, and may cry ugly elephant tears each time another loss or impossible decision rears its ugly head.
Don’t start reading after dinner, unless you plan on being sleep deprived the next day – this captivating novel will keep you awake, steal your heart, crush your spirit, and hopefully remind you that we must learn from the past or be doomed to repeat it.
A share of proceeds will be donated to DEC’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal
The Memory Keeper of Kyiv
May 16, 2022
Thank you to NetGalley and Boldwood Books for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.