With no contact from the outside world, it ceases to exist. It’s just us, the coal, and the heat.
And the bugs. Lord, save us from the bugs. The lice are everywhere – our hair, our clothes, our private parts – everywhere.
“Come here!” Dagmar calls out to no one in particular, late one afternoon before our evening meal. “Look at this!” She points at a rag on the floor beside her bunk.
I’m the only one who draws closer. “What?” Can’t she pick up her own sweater?
“Watch. Watch the sweater.”
I stare at the lump of wool. “It’s . . .mov . . .moving.”
“It’s crawling, Katya. The sweater has legs.”
We watch as countless tiny legs carry it forward. The lice show the power of numbers, of what a collective can be. Lice are our role models. The individual is nothing. The bugs cooperate with each other, each louse doing its share, carrying its weight.
“Such good little communists,” I mutter. “
Crow Stone opens in November, 1944, in East Prussia, Katya’s adopted home where she has now lived for several years. It is clear that Nazi Germany is losing the war, and the current fear is the invading Soviet Army and what that means for civilians caught in its path. As the Soviets invade in early 1945, Katya and others join a desperate attempt to cross the iced-over Vistula Lagoon in hopes of reaching Pillau and ships which will cross the Baltic Sea to freedom.
Unfortunately, Katya’s journey ends with her capture, her return to the Soviet Union, and her imprisonment in a forced labour camp working coal mines in the Ural Mountains. Her ability to speak both German and Russian allows her to help with translation and become a “starosta” (Russian for “person in charge”). While this occasionally provides a few perks for her, Katya is not spared the hard work and brutal conditions of the camp.
Katya is a brave young woman who learns strength and resilience under unimaginable circumstances. Many times she is ready to simply give up, but, somehow, she endures, often turning off her thoughts and relying on her body to carry on the day-to-day labour of work in the coal mines. There are times when her linguistic abilities afford her a little extra food or some other small bonus, but these are short-lived and unreliable, and Katya often worries what type of payment might be demanded in return.
Gabriele Goldstone takes her readers into a world that, fortunately, they have never experienced. Her vivid writing provides details of the cold and heat, the hunger and exhaustion that Katya and others endure. Readers trudge alongside Katya as she attempts to escape early in the novel, experience the horrors of traveling in crowded cattle cars, and then, later, suffer beside her in the camp, coping not only with the extraordinary physical problems but also with the emotional and psychological issues she encounters both in herself and in the many women in her barracks. There are moments of compassion and humanity among the detainees, but these are rare and fleeting within the overall atmosphere of rape, illness, and death which seems inescapable.
This historical fiction novel presents a side of World War II which perhaps is not as well known to readers. Nazi Germany does not represent all Germans, of course, just as the Soviet Army does not represent all Russians. Thus, the author does not show either side as ‘good’ but rather studies the themes of inhumanity and revenge via the characters, whether German or Russian, that readers meet.
The title refers to a specific event in the novel when Katya throws a stone at a crow, killing the bird. Katya hates crows as they seem to simply be waiting to feast on the many dead bodies in the camp. She sees them as an omen, a symbol of evil hoping to prey on those unable to defend themselves. Her killing of the crow, eating the meat, and later sporting one of its feathers in her hair symbolizes strength, power and daring for Katya, and, when she recognizes these characteristics in herself, she has more hope for her survival and her future.
Crow Stone is the fifth book in a series by Gabriele Goldstone, all loosely based on stories told to the author by her mother about her experiences as a young woman. While reading the other books would provide more detail about Katya and what leads up to the present novel, Crow Stone is an excellent standalone book.
To help readers situate the story, there is a simple map at the outset of the novel. The last pages of the book contain the author’s notes detailing some of her mother’s recollections, a glossary of Russian and German words used in the novel, a list of places referred to in the book, and an extensive list of both nonfiction and fiction additional reading.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, Ontario.