Book Review: Maps and Shadows

Maps and Shadows: A Novel by Krysia Jopek 

A remarkable literary work, Maps and Shadows by Krysia Jopek tells the story of a Polish Catholic family who is captured by Russian soldiers during Russia’s occupation of eastern Poland in 1939. This little book skillfully navigates six years of war and exile. From forced labor camps in Siberia to Africa, from the Middle East to the battlefields of Monte Cassino, from England to the USA, the family survives on the hope of one day reuniting. The lyrical prose, poetry, and illustrations of Maps and Shadows bring to light events all too often forgotten by historians, namely that the nearly 1.5 million Poles were rounded up by the Red Army and sent to hard labor camps in Siberia.

In her debut WWII novel that reads like a wartime memoir, Jopek uses four viewpoint characters—Helcia, Henryk, Zofia, and Andrzej—to explore the tragic separations, deprivation, and sickness. Each character shows the reader a unique aspect of the deportee’s experience in the Russian slave labor camps and beyond.

First we hear from Helcia, the child historian and poet who documents her family’s deportation experience on scraps of paper torn from an old dictionary she had hidden under her dress skirt when they were captured: “I have been told to stick to the facts, to what is real instead of imagined, to what can be touched instead of what is felt. I believe the intention of this instruction was kindness. So I shall begin with the facts and try to use them as a steadying branch over the abysses of night, hunger and terror.” Carrying the tatters of her diary with her to make sense out of an unimaginable childhood journey, Helcia will survive Siberian snow and typhoid fever in Africa.

And from brother Henryk, who was “freed” from Siberia by Stalin’s amnesty agreement in 1941 to fight the Nazis: “When we arrived, we looked like skeletons webbed with taut skin. Emaciated to bone. The British soldiers’ faces registered obvious alarm. They were expecting young soldiers, not scrawny boys whose uniforms were numerous sizes too large.”

Mama Zofia, during the interminable frozen winters in Siberia, cleans the hut that kept her warm and strong. “Sweep, sweep, sweep. Keep the dust and the thoughts away. Don’t let the children know you are afraid.” From Tata Andrzej, whose release from slave labor in Siberia led him through Iran, Iraq, and onto the battlefields of Monte Cassino in Italy: “How could I have left them? . . . My supply truck lurched off the path and rolled more than a hundred feet down into a gully. The last thing I remember . . .”

Jopek has created the perfect balance of the literary and the historical, transforming real-life events into an exceptional work of fiction.

A great book club book, featuring a reading group guide at the end, Maps and Shadows is recommended for readers of all ages, and especially for lovers of historical fiction and memoir. Bravo!

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