When working on Like a River From Its Course, I knew that I wanted to give as historically accurate a glimpse into World War II Soviet Ukraine as I could while still offering myself plenty of creative license with the stories. Having so many real life stories to draw from helped shape many of the characters and their narratives, but what about the side stories?
What about the real life men and women responsible for the heinous acts of the 1940’s?
Writing a book about World War II is daunting. The market is fairly saturated with stories from that era, so how would I write about those days in a way that was fresh and new? I needed to add an element of realism to make those wretched years come alive.
I spent countless hours researching the events that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, with the largest tragedy occurring at Babi Yar, the “killing ditch” where roughly 34,000 men, women, and children were killed in just two days time.
The mastermind behind that horrific event was a man named Paul Blobel.
A wicked, wretched little man, Blobel not only took credit for ordering thousands of Jews killed, but he was known to speak highly of his involvement in these mass executions.
In one of the books I read, a story was told of the day that Blobel and one of the Gestapo leaders drove past Babi Yar. The decomposing bodies of the Jews lay smoldering in the narrow ravine, and as the story goes, Blobel looked at the smoke, rising into the air in plumes of heartache, and said to his comrade, “This is my ditch. Isn’t it grand?”
The level of hatred that this one man possessed, and the demons that operated from his shell of a body were hard for me to comprehend. There were days when I had to swallow hard the bile of anger as I considered his actions, and those of the many like him.
It is these aspects of the book that make the story gritty and tough to read. I couldn’t possibly gloss over the sheer darkness of those days and somehow honor the fallen. If we are to respect their memories at all, then we must respect the wretched ways in which they died.
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Including some of the real life characters in the book gave me a chance to show the extreme depravity of these men. But it also shined a light on the beauty and resilience of those who fought and survived those years.
Juxtaposed against Paul Blobel’s ugliness was the beauty of Ivan Kyrilovich, a man who was willing to give his life for his Jewish neighbors. Maria Ivanovna was willing to take a beating for her friend. Luda Michaelvna chose love over hatred after being assaulted. Sergei Ivanov worked as a partisan, despite the danger it put him in.
For all the horror of World War II, there was a whole lot of hope, and when you start mining through all these stories you find that the wretchedness of men like Paul Blobel cannot withstand the ultimate beauty of the human spirit.
We live in a day when fear is ever present. Tensions are high around the world, and there’s no better time than now to look at the past and to remember that the spirit of a man cannot be so easily quenched.
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He woke early, the impending sunrise giving the morning sky just a hint of grey, a sign that life would soon rise and begin the daily dance. He moved through the motions of dressing, then made his way to the kitchen where the smell of coffee greeted him with gentle grace, pushing away some of the sleep that still lingered in his brain.
He wrapped his hands around the hot mug and waited for his brain to catch up to his body. Half a cup of coffee later, he felt ready. He walked to his desk, an old, worn block of wood that he’d sat at for over a decade now and he set the coffee cup down next to the shiny, black typewriter – his pride and joy.
He decided many years ago that his most serious thinking and writing would happen on this typewriter. The clacking of the keys produced a romanticism that spurred more thoughts, more ideas. He couldn’t replicate such creativity on a computer.
With the night sky still fighting against the rising sun, he hit the first key, then the second, until his fingers moved in a rhythm. His brain didn’t have time to question or worry about the intricacies of today’s writing. He simply let the ideas spill out, until the sun shone high, the dewy grass glimmered, and the final drop of coffee had long been drained away.
Only then could his day begin.
In college, I had a professor by the name of Dr. Tom Hanks. True story. He taught an entire class on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It was one of my favorite classes. It nearly did me in, as the whole purpose of the class was to read the book in the original Chaucerian language, memorize large portions of it, and write frequent papers on the different short stories.
But Dr. Hanks made the class fascinating for us all.
He was known to come into class dressed as Chaucer from time to time. When he read the stories to us, they came alive, as the inflection of his voice rose and fell with the beat of this strange language. I’ll never forget the day Dr. Hanks described to us the way he felt when he sat down to write.
“I write because I have to,” he told us one afternoon. “Writing for me is like brushing my teeth. I don’t always enjoy the process, but it is a necessity to get through my day.”
I don’t know if Dr. Hanks actually wrote on a black typewriter or not. I imagine that he did, because the idea of it befits the memory I have of this fascinating man. What I know with certainty, though, is Dr. Hanks ignited in me a passion for the written word unlike anyone I had ever known. He gave me a glimpse into the mind of someone who thrived on creativity.
He, along with one other teacher my senior year at Baylor, sent me away from college with the desire to create.
We all have a spark of creativity buried somewhere inside. Sometimes that spark manifests itself in words, sometimes in numbers. It can be showcased in the kitchen, bubbling over in hot meals, or piled high in decorative treats. The creativity can come out in rhythms and notes, or in the joy that comes from a deep conversation. Creativity can be seen in a painting, in a well decorated home, or in the joy that one finds in Do It Yourself projects.
There is a method to each of our creative minds. Some of us do our best work early in the morning, some prefer the dark quiet of the night. Some sit and let the ideas flow freely, others think and build until the ideas are ready to spill out.
Everyone is creative in some way, shape or form, and it’s that creativity that all comes together to form a world full of color, of innovation, and of beautiful, interesting life – a life designed by the ultimate Creator Himself. What a beautiful thing to behold.
Have you ever considered how you were wired creatively? When do you do your best work, and how do you keep your mind focused on the things that fuel the creative portion of your brain?
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