Truth is more terrible than fiction

Back in December of 2009, I learned about the Holodomor from Vasily Grossman in his short novel, Forever Flowing. Since that time, I have caught references to the massive government-caused famine in Ukraine in several novels. (The Child Thief, by Dan Smith, is another notable example.) An estimated three million people died from starvation and violence in 1933. Reading about the Holodomor in fiction is hard enough. The novelists make choices about how much they reveal or hide from their readers. They can hide the worst of it so that their readers will keep reading.

Historians do not do this.

Daily Express, August 6, 1934 (Via Wikicommons)

The Daily Express, August 6, 1934 (Via Wikicommons). The Holodomor was almost universally ignored outside of the Soviet Union.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how my knowledge as a literature wonk informed my reading of history texts. It’s only fitting that I end the week with how learning more about the history is informing my thoughts about books. The first chapter of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin covers the Holodomor is great and horrifying detail. I won’t be able to read another novel that mentions it without remembering the testimonies Snyder collected for Bloodlands. I’m not going to repeat them here because the rest of the post would be filled up with trigger warnings first.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. My favorite authors are the ones who clearly do a lot of research but can create a rich, realistic recreation of a time period without turning the story into a dissertation. The thing I often forget in my quest for a good read is how historical fiction can remind its readers of things that have been unjustly been forgotten. I was chatting with my sister after reading that first chapter in Bloodlands. When she asked was I was reading, I told her she didn’t want to know. Before too long, though, I was telling her about the Holodomor. Her first question was, “Why haven’t I heard of this?” I don’t have a good answer for this question and Bloodlands is not the kind of book I’m going to hand out to anyone, because I know not everyone can handle its content. But a novel? A novel might be a way to share important history with more people.


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