Daughters of the Occupation by Shelly Sanders – Book Review

It is strange to read the story of the Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 at this precise moment, the crowding in the shelters, the wanton killings and destruction. Does this art imitate life or vice versa, given that Shelly Sanders’ latest work is about another war in another time and place?

Sanders does not claim Daughters of the Occupation being autobiographical, but it is based on real events from World War II when members of his own family fell victim to the infamous Latvian Holocaust. Also known as the Rumbula Massacre, 25,000 Jews were massacred in two days in 1941.

“I had to (write this book) for my family, for Latvian Jews who didn’t live to tell their own stories, and for myself to try to understand the people who came before me,” she wrote in the thanks.

That she achieves her goal in this multi-layered novel offers the reader a remarkable window into the comfortable and prosperous pre-war world of Baltic Jewish society and the speed and brutality with which an entire society can be extinguished.

This harrowing tale of devastation is the quest undertaken thirty years later by a descendant, Sarah, aged twenty-four, who lives in Chicago and, upon the death of her mother, tries to understand the hidden family trauma of war. She is, reluctantly, helped by her grandmother.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, we experience family tragedy with Sarah, as we follow her search for truth and understanding. She visits Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was then a Soviet satellite state. Consequently, Sarah lives in constant fear that the authorities will find out what she is really doing there.

This dual storytelling provides a strong narrative dynamic, highlighting the generational sadness and trauma endured by so many victims of the cruelty of war, but also the resilience of the human spirit.

A resident of Oakville, Sanders is a journalist who has written for many of Canada’s best-known newspapers and periodicals. She only learned of her Jewish roots as an adult. Knowledge of the trauma and resilience of his family led this successful writer on this particular historical path.

She has also written three award-winning young adult novels, Rachel’s Secret, Rachel’s Promise, and Rachel’s Hopeinspired by his grandmother’s escape from a Russian program.

Novels based on the past are still popular and even more so today, as the historical genre has expanded to include a greater diversity of times, countries, and peoples. In fact, this reviewer finds that when visiting somewhere for the first time, it’s not always the guide who, on reflection, turns out to be the most insightful. While guidebooks and maps certainly have their place, nothing can beat a really good “read-up” about a destination that gives the visitor an understanding as well as that elusive sense of time and place.

by Shelly Sanders is published by Harper Collins Canada and released on April 11, 2022 for $24.99.

Kate Barlow

Originally from England, she has always enjoyed writing, pursuing a career as a journalist at the Hamilton Spectator and eventually becoming a published author. A founding member of a local book club, Kate is always looking for that person…

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April 24, 2022

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