Book Review: I Will Die In a Foreign Land
Reviewed by Alexandra Barbush
An emphatic, overlapping narrative that weaves the stories of strangers and friends through the Ukrainian conflict of 2014
I Will Die in a Foreign Land tells the harrowing story of the Ukrainian conflict in 2014. Raw and emotional, Pickhart expertly displays the emotional passion and patriotic values at the root of the conflict, centered around the intersection of four main characters.
In 2013, when many citizens of Ukraine moved toward joining the European Union, then-President Yanukovych solidified his ties with Russia and their leader, Putin, first with a contract and then the annexing of Crimea.
What begins as peaceful–protesting the move away from what many see as the advancement and future of Ukraine–military police use extreme force, firing on their own citizens, wounding and killing at the Maiden, in Kyiv. For reasons personal and political, four strangers are brought together in a makeshift hospital/church, after the national hospitals are deemed unsafe, due to political and police control.
Katya is a Ukrainian-born doctor who lives in Boston. After a series of personal traumas befall her in her American life, most recently the Boston Bombing, she feels pulled to help in Kyiv. Katya leads the medical assistance team at the church, where she comes upon a badly-wounded man, who is known only as The Captain.
Among the wounded is Misha Tkachenko, brought there by his friend and once-upon-a-time lover, Slava. While Misha stays to recover and help Katya with the other wounded, Slava, an activist, returns to the fighting to protest and help.
The fighting and the resistance continue on for several days, when Slava receives a call from her American friend, who shows up on her doorstep with a Ukrainian woman, and Russian-sympathizer and journalist, Dasha. At first, Slava hates Dasha, and doesn’t understand how she could see both sides of a volatile conflict that’s leaving her friends hurt or worse.
After they spend more time together, those strong feelings turn, and Slava experiences the most profound love of her life. Free and unafraid to be gay in a Ukraine that stigmatizes and punishes queer people, Slava is enthralled by Dasha’s spirit and fortitude, to the painful end.
At the same time, Katya and Misha grow closer while at the medic camp, and they come to share their own heartbreak and painful back stories. All the while, the conflict rages and the narrative is interspersed with that of the Captain’s past, who we learn is Aleksander Ivanovich. Former KGB official, Ivanovich’s own life is painted within the grooves of the painful history of Ukraine and Russia. The 2014 conflict rises and splinters, and as the characters begin to go their separate ways, back to their family homes, their old lives; their one rare connection in the form of Ivanovich, will prove enough to connect them forever.
Pickhart’s story is timely and painful. While many American readers will remember the annexing of Crimea to Russia and the horror stories on the news of a military police willing to fire on their own people, Pickhart embeds the reader in the plain volatility of a civilian-military war. The running, the screaming, the shrapnel from nowhere, the sudden and undeniable disappearance of anyone bold enough not to hide.
The characters are expertly splayed upon the table, closed as a fist at first, and slowly opening to spindling fingers, bare and pink with the rawness of personal pain, past and current. It’s emotional, and upsetting, but it humanizes a conflict that feels far away, and reminds us that these people, these characters, are so real. People, thrust into a life and world that doesn’t prioritize them, but march on unabashed and with the singular purpose of survival.
I’d recommend I Will Die in a Foreign Land to anyone who enjoys a beautiful, intertwining narrative that, while not neat and pretty, comes together at the end for a sense of true satisfaction. Pickhart does what the media couldn’t: she puts names and faces to the stories of violent conflict. She reminds the reader that every journalist who disappeared is your friend who loudly states their opinion, that every mother is a woman with a backstory of love and life and pain before she moved into her new role.
The story is engaging and keeps the reader wanting more; it’s apparent from the beginning that there is an underlying thread, a ribbon of truth connecting them all, and Pickhart makes sure the reader stays on long enough to find out what it is.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Genre: Literary Fiction / Political / Historical / War
Print Length: 260 pages
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