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A woman close by, overhears our conversation and adds, “They want to keep us separate from our family and friends.  Stalin shows no kindness.  We’ve been trucked in from villages all around Zhitomir.  I’m from Pulin.  That family over there,” she points, “is from Novograd Volinsk.  All of Volhynia is being emptied.”

I edge away from the woman.  I don’t want to talk to strangers.  She starts talking to someone else.

“I hate Stalin,” I whisper to Mama.

“Shh,” Mama says, looking around in the dark.  Then she takes my hand.  “At least we’re together, Olga.”

Mama’s hand feels cold and small.

(from The Kulak’s Daughter, page 86)

The Kulak’s Daughter is historical fiction based on the life of Gabriele Goldstone’s mother, whose family photos grace the cover of the novel.  The book opens in Federofka, a village near Zhitomir in the Soviet Union, in 1929 and is told from the first person viewpoint of 11-year-old Olga.  Olga is a kulak’s daughter; her father is a farmer unwilling to turn his land, animals, and crops over to the Stalinist regime to be turned into collective farms.  Olga’s life undergoes major changes under Stalin, who puts a stop to religion, and therefore Christmas, and requires children to go to school on Sundays.

Her father’s determination to hold onto the farm causes tension in the family, as his brother-in-law Leo is what he calls “an opportunistic Bolshevik.”  Olga must be strong for her mother and her younger siblings when her father is beaten and eventually taken prisoner.  She loses friends when their parents don’t want them associating with her due to her father’s position on collectivism.  After her father is taken away, her mother is informed that she and her children, as second-class kulaks, will be sent to labor camps, or Gulags.  The family is sent to Siberia to live in cramped barracks infested with bedbugs and typhus-carrying lice.  People are starving, and when Olga’s mother withdraws, Olga must assume the responsibility of ensuring her family survives.

In The Kulak’s Daughter, Goldstone has written a middle-grade novel that teaches younger readers a little about living under Stalin’s government from a point of view they can understand.  She doesn’t gloss over the horrors that Olga experiences and witnesses, but provides many things for older children to ponder and discuss.  I didn’t read the book with my daughter (who was occupied with summer reading requirements), but it’s a great novel for parents to share with their children.  I hadn’t yet read anything about Stalin’s regime, so I learned a lot from The Kulak’s Daughter, and at just over 200 pages, I finished the book in a couple of hours.

Although it’s a quick and easy read, The Kulak’s Daughter is a book that stays with you long after you turn the last page.  Goldstone perfectly captures the voice and innocence of a child who doesn’t understand why her world is changing and how people can be so cruel to one another.  She does a good job showing Olga’s evolution from a little girl with a beautiful doll to a strong young woman unwilling to break under conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  And in the midst of Olga’s powerful story, Goldstone makes the farm, the Gulag, and the snowy landscape of Siberia come to life.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Kulak’s Daughter at Book Expo America 2010. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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