Friday, August 21, 2015

Bitter Harvest

When I began my Legends of the Five Directions series, I knew the time would come when I would have to deal with what historians call the Starodub War. It was a small war, as wars go, just one stage in the long conflict between the adjacent powers of Russia and Poland-Lithuania, with a little help (or hindrance, depending on one’s point of view) from various Tatar hordes. It lasted from 1534 to 1537, although it would have been over in half the time if the diplomats had spent more time negotiating and less posturing. 

There was no way to avoid it: like all noblemen in the sixteenth century, my hero Daniil and his relatives, as well as the khans and sultans of Kasimov, served in the Russian army from the age of fifteen until death or total debility, whichever came first. Boyars did other things, too: served at court, acted as regional governors, went on diplomatic missions, and the like. But since the series begins in February 1534 and will certainly not end before 1538, it seemed unlikely that every male character would somehow miraculously avoid time at the front. Daniil doesn’t even want to escape his responsibilities; he enjoys the challenges of military life, although his view of war naturally becomes more nuanced as he ages. The Swan Princess is the book that tackles, at least peripherally, the effects of the Starodub War on the lives of those who serve—and those who stay at home.

Alas, I am not Bernard Cornwell—much as I admire his Saxon Tales. Writing fight scenes just does not appeal to me. I am more interested in relationships, whether between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, or mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Even so, I recognize the power of war as a disruptor of human life, a driver of conflict both raw and emotional. And so I was immediately drawn to Lucy Sanna’s The Cherry Harvest, which manages in rich and beautiful prose to explore the complex and varied reactions caused by World War II without ever leaving Wisconsin. Even the title is simultaneously evocative and deceiving: what can a cherry harvest have to do with Adolf Hitler?

But I’m not telling. You will have to read the book to find out. Or listen to the interview, then read the book.

As always, the rest of this  post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Many novels look at World War II—what happened, why it happened, how the world would have changed if the war had never occurred or had taken a different course. Lucy Sanna, in The Cherry Harvest (William Morrow, 2015), approaches World War II from a different perspective: its impact on farming communities in the Midwest and the little-known history of German prisoners of war brought for confinement to the United States.

By May 1944, Charlotte Christiansen has reached the end of her rope. The cherry harvest of 1943 has rotted on the tree because the migrant laborers who once worked on her farm have found better-paying jobs in factories. Charlotte has been reduced to butchering her daughter’s prized rabbits in secret and trading eggs and milk for meat if she is to feed her family. But the local country store has canceled her line of credit, and if she and her husband cannot find enough workers to pick the 1944 harvest, they will lose everything they have. So when Charlotte learns that the US government will send German prisoners of war into rural communities to bring in the crops, she urges the local county board to, in the words of one member, make “a bargain with the devil.”

The prisoners defy the farmers’ worst expectations. Some of them deny any adherence to the Nazi cause; some are barely out of their teens; one, obviously educated and cultured, speaks English well enough to develop a friendship with Charlotte’s family. The community’s resistance to their presence gradually ebbs. Then Charlotte’s son returns from fighting the Nazis, only to find them harvesting cherries in his own back yard.

In this beautifully written and poignant story, Lucy Sanna explores the complexity of love and loyalty in a world where even the distant echoes of war prove impossible to ignore.

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