Knyzhka Corner Book Review: Sliding on the Snow Stone by Andy Szpuk

Szpuk, Andy.
That Right Publishing, 2011. 238 p. ISBN 1466305681


When Andy Szpuk asked his father about his earliest memory, he replied, “Russian soldiers carrying corpses away.” After hearing about his father’s life, Szpuk decided that this story must be told. Sliding on the Snow Stone gives readers a glimpse into the incredible determination that kept the Ukrainian nation alive throughout centuries of foreign oppression.

As Sliding on the Snow Stone begins, it is 1932 and five-year old Stepan realizes that his tiny village near the town of Vinnitsya has changed forever. Soviet soldiers are picking up the bodies of his starving neighbours on the road.  Stepan’s description is heart wrenching, “They began by taking away all our grain, and once they’d done that, they stripped rural Ukraine of all its food produce.  There was nothing left to eat.  Of course, back then I didn’t know all that.  I was just a boy.”

Stepan’s family manages to survive during the Holodomor because of their cow’s milk. However, all around them people are dying and eating anything they can find – even human flesh. Meanwhile, Soviet soldiers are freely eating and drinking.  The Ukrainian will to survive is incredible, “They tried to crush us, but our spirit was too strong with that Kozak blood inside us.”

After the Holodomor, the village slowly recovers, but not for long. In 1941, the Nazis invade Ukraine.  The villagers rejoice because they are free of their Soviet masters.  At first, the Nazis appear to be liberators. Stepan and his friends even get chocolate from the Germans.  However, the villagers soon realize that they have just traded one dictator for another.

The Nazis demand food and unquestionable loyalty.  Whenever there is a problem, villagers are executed.  At one point, Stepan and his father are in line to be executed.  However, they are temporarily spared because of an attack on the village.  They manage to escape to Stanislaviv, but when the battle causes the evacuation of the city, Stepan and his father flee to the West hoping to escape the war.

They get as far as Slovenia through the kindness of strangers.  However, their luck ends here.  Stepan’s father is killed in a freak accident, and the young boy wanders away on his own.  At the end of the war, Stepan arrives in the Regensberg Displaced Person’s Camp.  The Americans who run the camp are a pleasant change. However, the Soviets demand that all Ukrainians be returned.  When two young men commit suicide rather than return to the Soviet Union, the Americans reconsider their policy and allow them to emigrate to the West.

Stepan settles in England where he finds a supportive Ukrainian community.  He marries and has two children.  In his later years, he watches as his native Ukraine is ravaged by the effects of the Chernobyl disaster.  However, he is also thrilled when Ukraine gains its independence from its Soviet masters.  He even returns to his homeland.

Andy Szpuk’s historical memoir of his father’s experiences is a touching story told with honesty and integrity.  The core of the book is a chronological narrative beginning in 1932 during the Holodomor and ending in 2003.  Readers whose relatives lived through the Nazi occupation and the post-war era will definitely be able to relate to Stepan’s story. The references to Ukrainian life in the diaspora are very timely. How would Stepan react to the protests against the pro-Russian government which began in Kyiv in December 2013? Would he want to travel to the Euromaidan to join the protestors?

This is Andy Szpuk’s first full length book.  Readers will be fascinated by the strength of the narrative and the incredible survival of the Ukrainian spirit, and they should definitely look forward to new works by this author!

Andy Szpuk is a short story writer and poet based in Nottingham, England.  His is a member of DIY Poets, performance poetry collective in Nottingham.  His works have appeared in anthologies such as: Mosaic, Stories for Homes and A Menu of Death.  He is also the author of the web-based work The History of Rock and Roll in 99 Tweets.  His most recent work is the poetry collection Droplets of Verse, Selected Poems – Volume One (2012).

-Reviewed by Myra Junyk

Available at Amazon (ebook and print) and Barnes and Noble (print)

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