The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh is a juvenile novel about a centenarian survivor of the Holodomor. The chapters jump between various places and years, from 1933 Ukraine, telling the tale of “GG” (short for great-grandma, the famine survivor) and 1933 New York, where GG’s cousin Helen moved to, and also New York and New Jersey in 2020, where GG and her American great-grandson Matthew live. I was often confused by Marsh’s chronological hopscotch where she juggled the stories of three girl cousins across two continents. This novel was written for those in the middle grades, which is between the ages of eight and twelve, yet I feel that the historical content would go over the heads of even young teenagers. Marsh made repeated references to Stalinism and Soviet history without context. I feel that the concluding Author’s Note would have served the reader better if it was placed at the beginning of the novel.
Matthew lives in COVID-lockdown New Jersey and is addicted to his Nintendo Switch. I have no knowledge about video games so all of his talk about the Legend of Zelda went over my head, however a younger reader might understand. COVID disinformation coupled with official Soviet denial about the Ukrainian famine gave Marsh the opportunity to lecture her young readers about fake news, and Matthew’s father tells him:
“Not enough people take the time to discern what’s based on facts and careful reporting and what’s not. There’s also so much shouting and villainizing. It makes it hard for anyone to admit when they’re wrong. They just get defensive.”
The book offers a late revelation (the “haunting secret” on the front cover) and I am providing a spoiler alert: I was surprised to discover that Nadiya, the woman who is GG, was in fact Mila, her cousin. When relatives came to rescue Nadiya from an orphanage in famine-ravaged Ukraine, Mila assumed the identity of her deceased cousin, and kept that secret for close to ninety years.
In spite of the subject matter which featured a Titanic Rose centenarian character reminiscing about her past, I did not enjoy The Lost Year. What would have made the story more interesting was, sadly, more appalling tragedy, which is hardly the stuff of juvenile fiction. Marsh ended up making the Holodomor sound like a minor inconvenience. Matthew’s relationship with his journalist father stretched my credibility as I don’t think young teen boys or their fathers express their love for one another with as much saccharinity.