Matthew is a seventh-grader now required to finish his school year online, isolated from his friends, due to the COVID pandemic. Nothing could be worse than having to help his 100-year-old great-grandmother (GG) sort her belongings. But it is through his isolation with GG that Matthew learns the secrets of her life and just how relevant the past can be when considering the present. With perspectives from spring 2020 and 1932 Ukraine and Brooklyn, The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh (Roaring Brook Press, 2023) poignantly tells the story of the Ukrainian Holodomor, the human-made famine Russia created to make a more submissive Ukrainian people.
The characters Matthew learns about from his GG are not submissive and weak. Rather, he learns about three cousins as he goes through GG’s boxes of memorabilia. There is feisty Mila, an only child of privilege living in Kyiv. Then there is Helen, a child of a Ukrainian immigrant living in Brooklyn, who hopes she can blend in as an American. And there is Nadiya, the poor girl from the countryside who flees to Kyiv in hopes of surviving. Matthew knows her as GG.
Matthew felt like his life was over when his mom took away his Switch and told him to help GG. But soon he finds he wants to hear more of her story. Both of his parents are journalists (of some kind), so he gets advice about how to “interview” GG. Meanwhile, back in 1932, Helen learns about the starving family in Ukraine and longs to help, shocked when she reads news that states there are no starving people in Russia. Mila, a child of a Communist party leader, also learns that much of her upbringing had been filled with lies when Nadiya enters her life. Can she let go of her propaganda-filled education? As a parallel, Matthew’s parents likewise face “fake news” issues since they are writing in the era of COVID, where even world leaders downplay the seriousness and many fight against the governmental regulations
The young characters were well-developed and unique. Helen, Mila, and Matthew all have a teenage-like innocence that are all different from each other. While Nadiya doesn’t sound like a teenager, she’s come from watching her family die of starvation, so her perspective as given in the book felt sincere and appropriate throughout as well. She was one voice of reason it was hard to ignore, as she stepped forward and told Mila the hard truths she did not want to believe.
There is so much more in this book. I can see the majority of middle-grade readers (the intended audience) being drawn into the characterizations, but they probably will relate to Matthew in his lockdown situation. (Even those who were too young in 2020 to be in seventh grade can relate to the frustration of being isolated or having online school.)
There is the undertone of commentary on the issue of propaganda today, but there is not very much emphasis on it. I think the book did a nice job of avoiding the issue of “COVID deniers” as well as people who refused to wear masks. It was mentioned, but the inclusion of Walter Duranty’s “fake news” cry during the 1930s was more powerful. This real journalist declared that the famine could not possibly be happening, so many in the US wouldn’t listen to reason. The second-hand accounts, declarations from Ukrainian immigrants hearing back from family, were dismissed in favor of Duranty’s reporting, which was later admitted to being propaganda fed to him by the Russian autocrat. Thankfully, I don’t think the US COVID situation was so ignorant: We had dozens of news organizations telling the truth, while mostly just FOX and a few other smaller right-wing media outlets repeated Trump’s lies. But, let’s remember, it was the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES trying to spread the rumors, which sure seems pretty autocratic to me.
At any rate, the book avoided 2020 politics but made a fantastic point about propaganda, finding reliable sources, and, above everything else, the importance of telling stories. I love how Matthew’s bond with his GG helped her tell her story. To me, it was sad that it took so long for her to overcome her guilt and be honest with herself. I had hoped that somehow she could have closure with the others involved. But she was 100 years old. No one else was around to find closure with. It was simply good her story finally had been told.
It’s important that we still find the true stories in the middle of our world today. What true stories have been hushed? What can we do to listen to other’s stories?
Notes: *I read this book in January 2024 and wrote this blog post about it on January 21. It’s on many of the “Mock Newbery” lists I’ve seen, even voted in one as the Mock Newbery winner, so I’m curious to see if it will be recognized tomorrow, January 22, when the 2024 awards are announced. It is certainly a fantastic option, along with so many others I’ve read this year.
Here are the other 2024 Mock Newbery nominations at SLJ, with links to where I’ve written about them:
AN AMERICAN STORY Alexander
* A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING Santat (reviewed in June)
* CHINESE MENU: THE HISTORY, MYTHS … Lin (reviewed in November)
EB & FLOW Baptist
THE EYES AND THE IMPOSSIBLE Eggers
GONE WOLF McBride
* THE LABORS OF HERCULES BEAL Schmidt (reviewed this month, January)
* THE LOST YEAR Marsh (reviewed up above lol)
* THE MANY ASSASSINATIONS OF SAMIR, THE SELLER OF DREAMS Nayeri (reviewed this month, January)
MY HEAD HAS A BELLYACHE Harris
* THE MONA LISA VANISHES Day (reviewed in August)
THE SKULL Klassen
* SIMON SORT OF SAYS Bow (reviewed in May)
* A WALK IN THE WOODS Grimes
Now I wish I’d read more of them so I could weigh in on more of them!!