Knyzhka Corner Book Review: Winterkill

In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s novel, Winterkill.

Winterkill examines the experience of Ukrainians during the Holodomor of the 1930’s. 

The narrative describes the conscious choice of Russian Soviet authorities to starve Ukrainian farmers and their families in order to impose Stalin’s five-year plan. “It was supposed to modernize the Soviet Union but actually hurt people like us. He was taking away our farms and making them into one big collective farm – the kolkhoz.” (p. 3)

Twelve-year old Nyl lives with his family in the village of Felivka, near Kharkiv in Soviet Ukraine.  It is 1930, and Soviet authorities are visiting farms to catalogue the possessions of Ukrainian farmers. One day, two strangers from Canada appear. Alice is a Young Pioneer, and her father works for the Soviets.  They have come all the way from Canada to implement Soviet plans to collectivize farms. Alice tells Nyl, “We’re helping with the drive to get people signed up for the kolkhozes.” (p. 4) As the pair catalogue all his family’s possessions, Nyl realizes nothing will ever be the same.

The brutal collectivization process continues, and everything is questioned – religion, family, beliefs, education, individual ownership, culture, and farming practices. Alice tells Nyl to get rid of his family’s icons because they will get his family “into a lot of trouble.” (p. 6) All the family’s farm animals are taken away for the kolkhoz. Tractors will supposedly replace people in the fields and produce more grain. The Soviets kill the local priest and his wife, and the church is destroyed. Nyl’s Uncle Illya is killed, other kulaks are sent into exile, and Aunt Pawlina’s collection of old folk songs is burned.

Nyl and his family realize that they must leave their home and everything they have ever known. While trying to survive, he must deal with: grief for his parents, his sister Yulia’s loyalty to the Soviet cause, and his brother Slavko’s desire to remain in Ukraine to build tractors. During Nyl’s journey, he is helped by Alice, the Young Pioneer from Canada, a variety of generous villagers, and Rhea Clyman, a  Canadian journalist. Clyman was expelled from the USSR for reporting truthfully about the Holodomor while other western journalists collaborated with the Soviets to cover up these horrific events for decades.

Skrypuch deals with a difficult subject in a thoughtful and compassionate way.  She wrote this novel because of her own personal connections to the history of Ukraine.  Her Ukrainian-born grandfather was a member of the Canadian Communist Party. He came to Canada before World War I and was interned as an enemy alien in Jasper, Alberta. The Communists welcomed him back after the internment, but he was rejected by many other Canadians. He even wanted to go to the Soviet Union, but the events of Stalin’s Holodomor caused him to reject his former beliefs.

While written for young readers, this novel will appeal to readers of all ages because of the strength of its characterization and storyline.  Nyl and Alice are both intelligent, empathetic, and brave young people who are dedicated to truth, morality, and family. The storyline deals with the events of the Stalin’s Holodomor. He not only wanted to collectivize parts of Ukraine, he also wanted to eliminate the Ukrainian culture and population.  Villagers were starved to death while their wheat was used to feed other Soviet citizens.  “We provided them with a bountiful harvest, and now they would leave us with nothing.” (p. 84) Ukrainian culture was brutally attacked.  Nyl watches the village priest and his wife being killed, and his church burned down.  Aunt Pawlina’s collection of Ukrainian folk songs is burned after her husband is murdered by the Soviets. “It wasn’t enough for the shock workers to kill my uncle.  They also burned the songs.  Our way of life was being erased.” (p. 38)

While Winterkill is about the events of the Holodomor in the early 1930’s, there is a direct link to the actions of Putin’s Russia during the war in Ukraine, which began in 2014 and escalated to a full-scale invasion in February 2022. In these years, Russian soldiers have murdered civilians, committed war crimes, and specifically targeted cultural institutions for destruction. This novel will appeal to those readers who want to know more about the history of Ukraine, the Holodomor, and the politics of genocide.

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is a Ukrainian Canadian writer who has published more than 20 books.  Marsha suffered from dyslexia as a child, but overcame it with patience and determination. After high school, she backpacked around Europe, and then took a job selling industrial supplies.  She was the first woman in Canada to do so. She became a librarian after completing her Master’s degree in Library Science, but her real dream was to become a writer.  After receiving over 100 rejections for her first lengthy novel, in 1996 she published her first book, Silver Threads. Her books have won many awards including: the 2020 Saskatchewan Snow Willow Award for Don’t Tell the Enemy, the 2020 Yellow Cedar Award for Too Young to Escape, and the 2018 Golden Oak Award for Adrift at Sea. She was honoured by Ukraine’s President with the Order of Princess Olha. Winterkill was a selection of the #VelshiBannedBookClub. In 2022, Marsha was banned for life from entering the Russian Federation.  Marsha lives in Brandford, Ontario with her family.

–Reviewed by Myra Junyk

Skrypuch, Marsha Forchuk.


Scholastic Inc., 2022. 266 p. ISBN 978-1-338-83141-2

Available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon. (Affiliate link.)


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