The Hidden Room by William Durbin and Barbara Durbin (Lake Vermillion Press, $11.99)
Reviewed by MaryAnn Grossman, St. Paul Pioneer Press 6/18/22
“‘Run!’ I shout, stunned that we’ve been caught in the middle of a German and Russian tank battle. We bolt across the bridge, veering toward the woods just as a tank behind us returns fire.”
This riveting story of a Jewish family who lived in a cave in Ukraine during the last year of World War II is written for middle grade readers but it should be read by everyone who watches the horrors unfolding in that country now.
Written by the Durbin husband/wife team, it’s based on the true story of Esther Stermer and her family, who took refuge in a cave, as did many others, when the Nazis invaded their village in Ukraine.
Less talented authors could have made this story almost too difficult to read, since it brings up the Holodomor, when Josef Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians (and others) in the early 1930s. The Nazis of course are no better than the Soviets, shooting Jews into their graves. And some Ukrainians were eager to reveal Jewish neighbors’ hiding places.
Yet the fictional family in the book finds ways to laugh as they try to grow used to the darkness of their cave. Jacob, who’s 14, tries to look after his 4-year-old brother, Eli, and 9-year-old sister, Rachel, when he’s not cutting wood with his dad under cover of darkness. They have supplies, thanks to Stepan, son of their kind next door neighbor who is risking her life to help them.
Much of the book is about how people stay alive and sane living in darkness (they do have lamps) always worrying about when the food will run out. When they take in Elena, a Ukrainian girl, the food supply gets tighter, but they consider her a daughter even though she’s a Christian. Elena and Jacob are the only ones capable of sneaking out under cover of darkness to forage for nuts and other foods the mother can use for making stew. But as winter lingers, there isn’t anything to forage for in the surrounding forest and the family is close to starvation.
Besides interesting historical information about Ukraine, this fast-paced novel is also exciting when Jacob and Elena evade enemy tanks, with humor provided by Eli’s obsession with thoughts of jelly doughnuts. And there’s bravery, including the mother’s insistence that things are going to be OK and how she somehow finds ways to celebrate Jewish holidays and the kids’ birthdays, even though there isn’t much to eat.
Bill Durbin, winner of two Minnesota Book Awards, has written 14 novels. He and his wife, a former teacher, divide their time between Lake Vermillion on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Duluth, MN.