Cossack (Drava Book 1) by Ronald McQueen is an illuminating story that gives us a glimpse into the plight of the Cossack people around WWII. The story introduces us to a once-thriving staništa (Croatian for habitat or living space) that now just includes a handful of houses, farm buildings, a slow-moving river, and a rusted tractor. This is where the Cossacks lived and a few of them still live—people belonging to the Don and Dejnev families.
The people in the staništa have learnt to live with what is now their hard reality and know how to celebrate the little things in life. But, this doesn’t last for long, as what remains of these families is attacked and destroyed by Russian soldiers. One of the very few who escape from these soldiers is Katja Dejnev—a girl “just approaching the first bloom of young womanhood.” Where does Katja go from here? Whom does she turn to? This forms one of the largest chunks of this beautifully written story.
I have read my share of historical fiction, but this one is something that will stay on top of my mind for a long time to come. The author has taken great pains to spell out every little detail that would help us imagine the settings, the battles, and the characters. It is these details that ensured that I took my time reading the book. I found it to be an emotional roller coaster. It’s not easy to read about the hardships faced by the Cossacks as they get trapped between the Nazis and the Red Army. But, the strength and determination shown by each of the characters makes it a true story of inspiration.
This book is a must-read if you enjoy learning more about history that hasn’t been heavily documented previously; however, if you are new to historical fiction, you might want to pick another book before you dive into this one.
There are breaks of sorts in the story as you see it flow from the perspective of three main characters from different backgrounds— Katja (introduced earlier in the review), Andrei, the old but dependable veteran; and Mikhail, the young, brave soldier. This gives us pause and helps us assimilate the new events that happen in the lives of each of these characters as they move through Europe, fighting and fleeing from the enemy.
There is no doubt that the author has done his research abundantly well. Though there is a disclaimer before the book begins that the story weaves some fiction with real history, it’s hard to tell in places where fact ends and where fiction begins. The writing was so wonderful in most places that I found it easy to get emotionally connected to the main characters.
I selected this book to read as I was curious to know what the author’s perspective was on WWII; however, I never imagined it would teach me so much about Cossack history. I was impressed at the depth of narrative.
Nevertheless, there were times when there were jumps back in time that were introduced into the story without preamble. This was disconcerting. For instance,
Katja was thrilled.
Beside her on the front board of the wagon, Mikhail looked up and smiled at the girl. He had some idea of how impressive all this must be – a simple farm girl who had probably never seen anything much larger than a village-sized stanista. For someone like that Novocherkassk must seem like a dream.
And so, with Katja gaping, open-mouthed at her surroundings, they entered Novocherkassk, the modern capital of the Don, where the lives of everyone were about to change forever…
…Huge sobs wracked her body and she couldn’t breathe. She was lying half on the floor and half in someone’s arms, and someone was talking to her. After what seemed a long time her sobbing settled down and the words finally got through to her.
‘There, there little one, there’s nothing to be afraid of. They have gone.’”
I noticed a number of typos and punctuation errors in the book. It requires another round of efficient proofreading and that should do it. However, these errors did little to detract from the overall story.
This book is historical fiction at its emotional best—though I’ll have to nip off a point here for the unwarranted jumps back in time. I rate it 3 out of 4 stars for its thoroughly researched, realistic storyline, relatable characters, and matter-of-fact and vivid take on the plight of the Cossacks during Stalin’s rule. If you are a fan and regular reader of historical fiction, you will love this book—provided tragedy doesn’t affect you too much.