1. The Hidden Room review from St. Paul Pioneer Press

    August 1, 2022


    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.



  2. The Journal of Otto Peltonen, new Univ. of MN Press edition

    February 27, 2021

    The Journal of Otto Peltonen, originally published as a part of Scholastic’s My Name is America series, is now available in paperback from the University of Minnesota Press.

    Otto’s life, as recorded in his journal, offers a vivid portrait of the Finnish immigrant experience in Minnesota during the early twentieth century.

    After journeying across the Atlantic with his mother and two sisters, young Otto Peltonen joins his father, working in the iron ore mines on the Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota. Otto not only experiences the harsh labor conditions that were common at the time, but he also discovers that United States Steel, the owners of the mine, will do anything to prevent the workers from organizing a union and earning a fair wage. To guarantee that fact, the company has instituted an industrial spy system, which pays bribes to workers who are willing turn in their friends and neighbors. When a sudden mining strike causes community-wide hardship, Otto and his family resolve to seek the freedom they had originally hoped to find when they first came to America.

    “Historical notes and authentic photos round out this captivating, dramatic view of the past.” Booklist

  3. St. Paul Pioneer Press Dead Man’s Rapids Review

    August 15, 2017


    From St. Paul Pioneer Press 7/7/17, Mary Ann Grossman

    Dead Man’s Rapids
    By William Durbin and Barbara Durbin
    (University of Minnesota Press, $16.95).

    Adventure stories are always appealing to kids, especially boys, but this account of life on a logging cook boat will interest adults, too. A sequel to the Durbins’ “Blackwater Ben,” this book begins in 1899. It’s been a year since Ben and his friend Nevers worked with Ben’s Pa in a logging camp where their main excitement was peeling potatoes. So the boys are excited about helping Pa in the wanigan (floating cook shack) on a 100-mile-long log drive worked by tough men called “river pigs.” But Pa decides to stay behind to woo Mrs. Wilson, owner of a boarding house and the woman who almost raised Ben. Pa’s replacement is a sausage-loving, one-eyed, greasy German cook, Old Sard, a cranky dude who is known for his bad food, including stinky sausages hung above the boys’ bunks.

    Learning to cook pancakes and bake the heavy bread Sard favors keeps the boys busy. When the wanigan is moved several times a day, the boys sometimes have to hang on tight when they go over rapids. The authors draw wonderful portraits of the loggers, who are divided into crews according to tasks. A near-giant named Hungry Mike is the boys’ friend and mentor, and they learn during the journey Sard has attributes they never expected.

    The story makes clear logging is a cold, hard, dangerous business. A man could fall into the water and drown when logs floated over him, or break a limb. Minnesotans know about log jams, because we’ve seen pictures of the historic jam at Taylors Falls in 1865.

    The authors give just enough information about logging, including illegal clear cuts, to bring history to life without getting bogged down in details. Ben and Nevers behave exactly the way you’d expect 11-year-olds to behave, alternately self-sufficient, scared, lonely. But it ends with their laughter, and we hope we’ll share their adventures in future books as they mature.

The Broken Blade Wintering The Journal of Sean Sullivan The Journal of Otto Peltonen The Journal of C.J. Jackson Song of Sampo Lake Blackwater Ben The Darkest Evening El Lector The Winter War