Historical Fiction Company - 5 Star Review and Highly Recommended Award
“They said, ‘These flowers understand the importance of looking heavenward to find hope and then spending time each day looking down to reflect upon their lives.’ Before long, you could find sunflowers everywhere, even in the winter!”
An incredibly time-appropriate novel considering what is happening to Ukraine at this moment. This novel spans the time period from 1973 to 2014, another time in history when Soviet aggression shadowed over Ukraine, and the joyous time when the country sought independence from the Communist regime.
When the story opens, we are introduced to Lyaksandro, whose name means ‘defender of men’, and his involvement in the underground rebellion against Soviet Russia; but as happened often during those days when spy against spy resulted in lives being threatened, Lyaksandro finds himself separated from his wife and daughter and sent to live a life of anonymity in a witness protection program after those under the KDB discover his treason.
Left behind are his wife, Ivanna, and daughter, Yevtsye, in a country trying to find its own identity, struggling through the harsh winters of dependence on the Party and seeking a way to emerge, to bloom, from the snow. Lyaksandro’s decisions affect and echo throughout their lives, fanning out to even his granddaughter, Ionna, whose modern and independent spirit reflects the strong Ukrainian people after finding their own grounding after years of suppression.
Each generation reveals another step towards Ukrainian independence, and each woman depicts the struggles the country, itself, faced in finding its own voice.
First, we have Ivanna, whose life changes when Lyaksandro disappears. After presented with a ‘lie’ about what happened to him, his supposed ‘death’ and the sordid story the regime comes up with to tell her, she loses all hope and becomes a woman set to autopilot, mindlessly accepting the Party rules, and enduring starvation, cold, and the emptiness of betrayal. Still, every day, she trudges to her assigned job, lives in her assigned housing, and collects the meager rations handed out in the food lines – all without question.
Second, we have Yevtsye, the young daughter of Lyaksandro, who remembers her father in a vague way since she was just a child when he disappeared from their lives. Growing up, she refuses to believe anything negative about him, but relegates him to her own desire for hope. His actions, and her mother’s actions, result in her blooming into a life she might have never known as she becomes a well revered scientist seeking the cure for cancer, and she meets the love of her life, Danya, who helps her find her faith amidst the atheistic world of Communism, and his character gives the needed historical and political element to explain what is happening in the world around them.
“We did it,” he announced joyfully. “Ukraine has seceded from the Soviet Union and claimed its independence!”
“Tension about our independence has existed every day from our declaration to the present because, fundamentally, Russia believes its role is one of protector over everyone else, and this protection comes at the expense of everyone else’s freedom. You can see this in how they have dealt with NATO over the years and with the EU.” - a quote from Danya as he debates the issue with his daughter, Ionna.
As their lives continue down their path, independence bursts through the melting snow like sunflower seedlings reaching for the sun when Ukraine declares its independence in 1994. Both Danya and Yevtsye are overjoyed with the sudden prospects, but the change is another harsh blow to Ivanna who spent her entire life believing in the rightness of the oppressive regime. A rift tears mother and daughter apart, leaving a vast canyon which appears irreparable and impassable.
Third, we have Ionna, the granddaughter, who represents the full blooming sunflower reaching for the sun; and the one thing which bonds all three women back together. Ionna’s relationship with her babusya, Ivanna, is a beautiful and sweet part of the storyline – a linking of the old ways and the new and how special the bonds of a granddaughter and her grandmother can be. Even later, when Ionna suffers unbearable loss, it is her grandmother’s strength that helps her through and that courageous Ukrainian spirit which forges her new life in a new country.
When Ionna seeks to make her own life, even taking on becoming a camp counselor in North Carolina in the US, suffering her own hardships of racial injustice and bullying, she discovers the connection to her heritage reaches out across the ocean, and she discovers family she never dreamed possible if she had stayed in Ukraine. When Russia comes against Ukraine for the first time in 2014, in the Crimea Peninsula, Ionna is restricted on returning to Ukraine and she finds her way to a Russian and Ukrainian community in Brighton Beach in New York. Here she rediscovers her identity and a family she never dreamed possible if she had stayed in Ukraine. Not only that, but all of the answers about her grandfather’s disappearance in the 1970s comes full circle, giving incredible closure to her mother, Yevtsye, and meaning to her own life.
Ms Brown does a brilliant job in depicting the strength of these Ukrainian women under the most trying of circumstances, and how hope emerges in the midst of war. This is a time-appropriate story of compassion, love, perseverance, family, resilience, faith, and how the actions and decisions of oppressive governments, or any government, can have life-altering consequences for the ordinary citizens who are just trying to live their lives. The theme that things always change, that nothing ever stays the same, is a powerful message, with the main characters showing how perseverance and courage help us all as human beings to brave the next morning.
“Life has a way of turning out the right way. I always say that everything turns out okay in the end. If it isn’t okay, it isn’t the end.”
Sunflowers Beneath the Snow” receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and the “Highly Recommended” award
Teri M Brown, author of An Enemy Like Me and Sunflowers Beneath the Snow connects readers with characters they'd love to invite to lunch.