Lee and I were freshly married and just beginning our life together in Frisco, Texas. We’d been in town for one week when we got together with a couple whose names I do not remember, nor do I recall how we were connected with them in the first place. I just remember going to lunch and telling these strangers that I needed a way to keep practicing my Russian language so I didn’t lose it.
“Oh, I know the perfect place!” the strange lady said. “There’s a gymnastics academy here in town run by Russians. You should go in an talk to them, and see if there’s a community here to get involved in.”
The next day, I visited the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy for the first time. Sometimes, I chuckle at my tenacity. I walked in and told the receptionist I was looking for someone who would speak Russian with me. She looked at me as if I had two horns growing out of my head, then led me into the gym and introduced me to Valeri Liukin and Evgeny Marchenko.
“I want to practice my Russian,” I said. Valeri cocked his head to the side slightly and smiled.
“Do you know anything about gymnastics?” he asked.
It just so happened I had been a competitive gymnast as a kid, and had coached on and off through high school and college. I nodded my head and he looked at Evgeny.
“Do you want a job?” he asked.
And so it was that I began working at WOGA not because I was looking to be a coach, but because I was looking for Russian speaking community. For two years, the coaches at WOGA took me under their wing, inviting me to parties, answering my incessant questions, helping me understand the nuances of the language I loved, and so much more.
They were my people, and it was them I was saddest to leave when we moved away.
The year after we moved, I contacted Evgeny with yet another odd request.
“I’m going to Ukraine to interview veterans for a book I want to write. Do you have any contacts there who can help me?”
It so happens, Evgeny’s mom lived in Vinnitsya, Ukraine, and within a week it was all set up for me to spend a few days with her.
A pregnant, sick Kelli, with Victoria and her table full of food!
Victoria Marchenko welcomed my mom and I into her home with open arms, and a table brimming with food. I was sick when I arrived, having picked up a terrible cold on the trip, and she immediately took it upon herself to cure me with tea and vereniki (think dumplings filled with meat – yum!).
Victoria was a true gem. She mothered me for the next two days as she took me around town, introducing me to some of the most fascinating people I would meet in all my travels.
She took me to the home of her friend, Elizabeta Semenova, a woman who worked as a partisan and whose experience became central to the story of Luda.
Me, Elizaveta, my dear friend Sveta, and Victoria in Elizabeta’s home.
She took me to a group of veterans who were one of the liveliest bunch of men I’ve ever met. They told their stories one at a time, and Victoria sat in the corner taking it all in. You could tell she was respected and admired within her community, and I felt a sense of pride just being in her presence. Somehow I knew I’d found a very special lady.
Victoria also told me about Vervolfy, Hitler’s underground bunker built just on the outskirts of Vinnitsya. Now just a meadow with no seeming significance (though the site has never been excavated, which gives it a mysterious quality), Victoria made sure I understood the gravity of what occurred at that place. Her description was so vivid and passionate that when I finally visited the site in person, I felt a hallowed awe for the men and women who died there.
This book wouldn’t have come together the way it did if it weren’t for Victoria Marchenko.
It wouldn’t have come together at all if I hadn’t been to audacious to walk into that gym so many years ago and just ask someone to talk to me. I mean, really – WHO DOES THAT?!
What a lovely thing it is to see the tapestry of this project woven together for such a time as this.
Speaking of the book, it’s time for another GIVEAWAY!
After years of research. And a few more years of seeking representation. And then a few months of seeking publication. And then another year of editing and marketing and incessantly talking about the book.
HERE IT IS!
Like a River From Its Course officially launches today. This is the day I’ve been waiting for since I was 22 years old. This is the day I dreamed about.
These are the stories I wanted the world to hear.
I pray I’ve done them justice. I pray that the men and women who are represented by this book are honored, because my deepest heart’s desire is to prove that there are still stories we haven’t heard.
In a world that feels unpredictable and frightening, I wanted to offer a book that gave hope. Four years ago, I visited Tanzania with Compassion international, and in the deep red soil of Africa, the Lord imprinted upon my heart the words that would become my life’s anthem:
The evidence of that truth becomes more and more clear to me with each passing day. Hope is slow. But oh my friends, hope is alive. It is so alive, and it’s real, and when the world feels dark and scary and uncertain, we can cling to the fact that hope is here.
We need the stories in this book for such a time as this. We need to be reminded that man cannot be so easily broken. We need to recall a time when people rallied against a greater evil. We must remember the men and women who put their own lives on the line so that they could protect their neighbors.
We need these stories. And we need them right now.
I don’t know if I’ve done a good job with this book launch. I don’t know if I’ve become annoying with all the promoting and marketing. I don’t know if I’ve spoken to the right people. Maybe I’ve been too forward. Maybe I’ve been too timid.
I’ve made mistakes along the way, and I’ve learned a whole lot in the process.
But today I know that none of that matters. Today is a celebration because today the book is officially out in the world.
Today I can finally say I delivered on my promise to share these stories.
Today I can say I’ve seen a dream fulfilled.
Today I give these stories as a gift to you. Please treasure them because they’re precious.
And today I say thank you to all the people who have cheered me on.
Thank you to the people who wouldn’t let me give up when I wanted to throw in the towel.
Thank you to the people who were waiting at the finish line with chocolates and cheers of excitement.
There were only six or seven of us in the class, and we met weekly, sometimes at the campus coffee shop, with our fresh pages in two. Ten pages a week was the requirement, and we’d hand those slowly developing stories to the person on our right, and for the next hour we read, then offered one another constructive criticism.
This class was paramount to my career in that it taught me not only the skill of writing on a deadline, but also how to edit, how to offer someone helpful feedback, and how to take constructive criticism without taking it personally.
In an industry that requires a thick skin, I’m forever grateful for that year-long course.
As I prepare to officially launch #RiverNovel out into the world, I know that not everyone will love it. It won’t be some people’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. I am ready and prepared for the reviews – all of them, the good and bad.
Thankfully, so far all the reviews have been positive. In fact, I’ve been truly humbled and floored by the way people have fallen in love with the stories and the characters in my book. I’m honored to be able to share these stories, and relieved that it seems I’ve done a good job.
Every reviews helps in this cutthroat market of selling books, and so today I’d like to offer a little giveaway.
If you’ve read Like a River From Its Course, and you leave a review on Amazon, you will be entered to win a $25 Gift Card to Amazon.
If you’ve already left your review, I know who you are and you’re already entered. Please just send me an email at rivernovelcontest(at)gmail(dot)com so that I have your contact information should you win (and I hope you do!).
If you haven’t finished the book yet, but plan to leave a review, awesome! Thank you! I’m going to pick a winner on Sunday so you still have time to finish.
And I want your honest reviews. Good or bad, you will be entered to win the gift card, so no pressure. Really! *wink*
I am genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, grateful for everyone who has taken the time to read this book so far. Thank you for celebrating this milestone with me. I am so honored to be on this journey, and to have so many cheering me on!
I spent the better part of two days last week tearing my house apart.
I was on a search for a photo. I could see the picture in my mind, but it wasn’t any of the places I imagined I would have put it. The up side to all this searching was the natural consequence of cleaning out drawers that desperately needed to be cleaned.
I finally decided to check the attic, even though I knew for certain the photo couldn’t be up there. Hadn’t I seen it recently?
I opened the first album I found and gasped. There she was, just as I remembered her, staring up at me with those kind, smiling eyes.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to the real Maria Ivanovna.
Maria’s story is fictionalized in my novel, though of all the storylines, hers stays truest to the real life plot. Some of it is fictionalized based on other stories that I gathered, but the skeleton of the entire book started with this woman right here:
Isn’t she just lovely?
And as I mentioned in the post about Baba Mysa, that character was also a composite of this real and lovely woman who entrusted me with her story so long ago.
After I found this one photo, I was hungry for more, so I reached out to my dear fried in Ukraine, who also happens to be Maria’s granddaughter, and I asked for more photos.
Alyona took me into her home when I was 20 years old, and she gave me her bedroom for four months so that I could study Russian. Every day, I’d walk from her little apartment on Shamrila Street to the train station, and I’d make the hour long trek to the Institute of Foreign Languages for my classes.
It was one of the grand adventures of my life.
The photos Alyona sent me brought tears to my eyes, because they brought not only the character of Maria Ivanovna to life, but they also gave me more of a visual for the real Maria.
Maria as she was making her escape from Germany.
Maria after the war.
Maria and her husband.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that history is real people. It isn’t just stories. When we’re so far removed from an event that is now immortalized in film, television, and history books, we overlook the before and after of all this history.
Maria had a history before the Germans forced her into slave labor, and she had a future after she returned. She was more than the moment of her captivity. She was real, and she was a delight.
The final picture I found was taken on the night that I met Maria face to face. It was 1996, and we were in Kiev, Ukraine. I had been invited to have dinner at Maria’s place, and while there, she shared her full story with me.
Now, before I show you this picture, I would like to sincerely apologize for what I’m wearing. I don’t ever remember owning such a sweater. It appears I let Mr. Rogers dress me for that evening.
You’ve been warned.
Kelli (in a most unfortunate sweater), and Maria. April, 1996.
History is real people, and as you read my book, I hope you will remember that these are more than just stories. These were lives. These were men and women who refused to be defined by one moment in time.
In the wake of all that’s occurred in our own country this week, it’s good to remember that we are more than one horrific event. We can still learn from history. We can honor the fallen, pick up the pieces, and refuse to be defined by that terrifying moment.
History is real people, and history is happening even today.
Setting a historical fiction novel in World War II Soviet Union might just be crazy.
When I set out to write my novel, I wanted to develop a story that was as historically accurate as possible while still offering myself creative license. This proved to be an overwhelming task given the vast history of those years, and the many different conflicting accounts of what happened.
There were times when I wanted to give up altogether.
Other times, I wondered if I should just make it Science Fiction. Hitler could be a Vampire, and all his cronies would be various forms of the undead.
It would’ve been a hot seller, but the premise sounded dumb, so I pressed on.
When it came to writing the Ukrainian characters, the stories flowed (almost) easily. I knew their stories, and so fictionalizing the tale didn’t feel like a chore. But writing the story of Frederick Herrmann, a young Nazi soldier hell-bent on carrying out the mission and task that his country and set before him left me almost paralyzed at times.
I am a bit of an idealist. The actions of the Nazi soldiers was something I couldn’t quite comprehend. How could so many young people follow so blindly the ideology of a clear tyrant and psychopath? How could they kill so robotically? And how did they live with themselves later?
I needed a reason, and so I set out to find one, but the research often led me to images that were so horrific, I had to step away. There were days when I hated Frederick and all that he stood for. I didn’t want to write of such atrocities, because I didn’t want to believe that people could really be that evil.
Frederick is the only purely fictional character in my book. While all of the other characters are based on the stories of men and women I met in Ukraine, Frederick came a little more reluctantly from my imagination.
I fought for Frederick. I wanted to redeem him somehow. I wanted there to be a reason for his wickedness, and in the end I think there was some redemption for his character, though it wasn’t what I expected when I began writing.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will tell you that Frederick eventually became one of my favorite characters to write. By the end of the story, I no longer hated him. I pitied him, and I pitied all the boys like him – the real ones who believed that they were right and justified in their mission.
I have to believe that there were lasting effects. I have to believe that for many, though I suspect not all, of those young men, the images that they saw, that were caused by their own calloused hands, haunted them for the rest of their lives.
How could they not?
Frederick Herrmann was a young man swallowed by the ideals of his country, and by a desperate need to please his father. His story may have been fictional, but many of his surroundings and experiences were not. The names of his commanders are the names of actual German leaders in Kiev in those years.
I set out to write a historical fiction story that stuck as close to fact as possible. Though Frederick is fictional, his story is not so unlike many of the young men from those desperate days.
In the end, Frederick became as real to me as any of the other characters.
I know some of you have read the book – what did you think? What are your thoughts on Frederick (without giving spoilers, please!)?
We didn’t really know what to expect when we stepped into the house. We only knew it would be a unique experience.
A Nigerian family from our church had invited us to celebrate the 50th birthday of their oldest sister with them. She is visiting America for the first time from Nigeria, and they planned a night of unabated joy.
As the evening wore on, more and more people poured through the doors, all of them dressed head to toe in traditional clothing. The women’s dresses were handmade by one of the sisters, their head wraps bold and bright, heels high, and jewelry big.
We began the evening with a hymn, following by praise songs, words of wisdom from the brother and our pastor, then words of affirmation for the birthday girl from anyone who wanted to speak.
They were effusive in their praise, voices singing loud. No one cared if they were on key or not. It wasn’t about a perfect rendering of the song. It was about praise. It was about joy.
It was a celebration.
“We want to thank God that you are still alive today!” they said, over and over. “We praise God because He could have taken you before today, but He didn’t. He gave you 50 years, and we thank Him for that.”
They pulled out drums and sang, the women all gathering around the celebrated sister, and they danced, laughing and clapping. The younger brother dropped to his knees, his arms raised high to the sky. It was worship. It was celebratory. It was praise.
It was joy.
And I sat in the corner with tears wetting my cheeks because this is the joy I long to fill my home. These people come from a country that has seen deep and lasting hardship, but you wouldn’t know. There was nothing melancholy or solemn about the evening. Only smiles that split wide their faces, and the overflowing joy that comes with praise.
It’s something I’ve seen before. I don’t know why, but I’m forever amazed at the ability of those who have walked through pain and suffering to live in the present with great joy and gladness. But what do I expect?
Why do I look for these things in those whose backgrounds have been less blessed than my own? Is it because I’ve been so immersed in the American mentality my whole life that I falsely and wrongly believe that hardship must naturally be dwelled upon?
Is it because I have seen so many people I know, people who have been unendingly blessed, dwell on hurt feelings and heartaches, simmering in anger rather than living in the blessed beauty of forgiveness and joy?
Oh, America. How much we miss when wrapped inside all our ‘blessing’.
We miss the opportunity for joy when we aren’t willing to look past our anger.
We miss true, unadulterated praise when we get stuck dwelling on the heartaches of the past.
We lose sight of every good thing when we constantly look toward an unknown future in fear.
I’m saddened to think that my country is missing out on a great deal of celebration because we’re so blinded by ease.
Easy Street has made us boring.
“In a word, the future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. Is is the most completely temporal part of time – for the Past is frozen and no longer flow, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Our nation is caught up in the uncertainty of the future right now. We’re rolling in our hopes and our fears, and it’s stealing joy, siphoning it right off before our eyes.
We spend so much time looking into the past, hoping that it will dictate the future, that somehow we seem to have forgotten how to enjoy the present, which is bright with the rays of eternity. The present is where love takes shape – it’s where memories are made, life is lived, and joy is found.
[Tweet “”For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters”]
Oh, friends. May we all experience the joy of living in the present today. May we let go of the anger and hurt of the past, and fear not the uncertainties of the future.
May we touch eternity today, right now, in this very moment.
If you haven’t preordered your copy of my novel, Like a River From Its Course, what are you waiting for?* It’s based on the true stories of men and women I spoke with personally – people who did not dwell on the past, but who lived joyfully in the present. This is a book you don’t want to miss!