The Holodomor, or Great Famine of Ukraine, is another black hole in history. Current scholarship estimates 3.5 to 5 million people of Ukraine died over the 1932 to 1933 year, as collectivization disrupted small farms and Stalin attempted to stamp out resistance with starvation and summary execution. But how do we, almost a century later, comprehend large numbers like five million? As the artist and historian Ernie Kroeger says, “[T]he accounting doesn’t seem to add up to anything, is in a sense meaningless. The numbers are abstract, horrible, unimaginable. There is no sense to be made of such numbers. They are in the realm of a netherworld.”*
One way to make sense of the overwhelming is to tell the story of one individual, one family. The graphic historical fiction Five Stalks of Grain (University of Calgary Press, 2022) takes on that humanizing work. Adrian Lysenko’s spare, evocative story and Ivanka Theodosia Galadza’s illustrations distil incomprehensible suffering and hardship to the story of a pair of children, Nadia and Taras, who, after their mother is executed for allegedly hoarding grain (any more than a handful in a house could be considered hoarding), undertake a harrowing search for safety.
The line drawings and inked backgrounds convey emotion on their own: winter forests, towns, and wild birds, as well as the two children and the various individuals they meet on their odyssey are simply and eloquently depicted, but with tension and vibrant action. Each of the hundreds of drawings is worth a thousand words of story movement; each is a complete moment of the children’s fortunes and emotions.
The story, conveyed with minimal text, is constructed in a series of encounters with helpers or oppressors depicted in brutal, though suggestive realism. Many dangers, in the form of other humans, mostly, loom between the two children and safety. But the world is nuanced: benevolent-seeming figures can betray or worse; a man in a feared uniform may give sustenance and helpful advice. The encounters celebrate individualism itself: no group should be collectivized into good or evil. Hatred itself is an enemy.
Supporting both narrative and illustration, allusions to Ukrainian folk tales appear: the lost brother and sister, seeking their home and safety, carry a talisman of bravery, meet with friendly woodland birds and babushkas in forest huts, fight demons, follow a trail of toll houses that may or may not lead to heaven.
The tale ends in a postscript: “61 years later…” visitors to an abandoned house try to reconstruct the fate of the two children, relatives lost to the genocide. Their fate is unknown; hope appears, but as a small, fleeting thing. In the urgency of the personal, we are reminded of the impact of human loss and suffering, as we may not be in numbers. This is not a book for the very young, but older children and adults will find it a moving, evocative journey of courage and resilience, and a reminder of the costs of violence, greed, and forgetting our humanity.
*Quote used with author permission.
Five Stalks of Grain
by Adrian Lysenko, Illustrated by Ivanka Theodosia Galadza
University of Calgary Press, November 2022, 152 p.p., $24.99
Karen Hofmann has published fiction and poetry in several literary magazines, including Prairie Fire. A first collection of poetry, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014, and a second novel will be published in 2017. Karen teaches literature, composition, and creative writing at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. Her writing explores relationships, especially of family, and the landscapes of the BC Interior.