She started her novel while a professional writing student at Baylor, and sixteen years later the book was published.
In the years between, Kelli Stuart found herself drawn into the complex history of Ukraine and its people. Like A River From Its Course is the ﬁctionalized account of the many men and women Kelli met while traveling in Ukraine, but it all started in 1998 with one woman. Her name was Maria Ivanovna, and she had survived a WWII German labor camp where she was forced to build armaments for the Nazis.
“While I was at Baylor, I actually spent a semester studying Russian in Kiev, Ukraine where I lived with Maria’s granddaughter,” Kelli said. “I got to spend time with Maria and hear her story. When I returned to Baylor, and I had an assignment to write a novel, I knew that I wanted to ﬁctionalize Maria’s story.”
As a senior in Bob Darden’s writing class, Kelli began to draft her novel about Maria. Darden quickly saw the potential of the book and encouraged Kelli to do more research and ﬁll in the gaps with more details. After graduating, Kelli networked with her contacts in Ukraine and began to collect ﬁrst hand accounts of people who had lived through WWII, many of them with amazing stories of survival. To ﬁnish the book, Kelli knew she needed to return to Ukraine and talk to people face to face.
“It took a long time,” she said. “I had to start and re-start, and ﬁgure out the voices, and how I wanted to tell the stories. I ended up with the personal stories of over 100 veterans, plus another 300 stories from the grandchildren of veterans. I had to weed through them and ﬁgure out which parts of stories to include. It took about 10 years.”
After two more drafts, Kelli felt confident the book was finished. She shopped it to publishing houses for a few years, and in 2016 it was published by Kregel Publications. When asked what kept her motivated for so long, she said the stories she had heard were too compelling to move past. For many people in the west, Ukraine is overlooked in the history of WWII. But Ukraine had a heavy Jewish population, stood between Hitler and Russia, and suffered an enormous loss of life during those dark years. They paid a heavy price during the war that has continued to shape world events even to today.
“They were stories that I had never heard before,” Kelli said.
“For example, just outside Kiev is the ditch at Babi Yar, where, on September 28th and 29th of 1941, all the Jews were ordered to evacuate. They were told they were being taken some place better, when in actuality they were herded to the ditch at Babi Yar. Just under 34,000 people were massacred in those two days. This was a story I had never heard. And, actually, Maria Ivanovna’s father was a survivor of Babi Yar. He was one of only a handful who survived by falling into the ditch right before one of the Nazi’s shot and letting the dead bodies bury him, and then crawling out after nightfall.”
Along with the stories from survivors, Kelli also fell in love with the language, the people and the culture she encountered. During a visit to a school in Ukraine, Kelli noticed an older man pacing outside the door. She met him after the program, and he told her he had fought in the Red Army during the war, and was one of 11 members of a 600-member battalion that survived.
“As he was telling me the story, he began crying,” Kelli said. “He looked at me and he said, ‘You can tell my story. I want you to tell my story but I want you to know that we were more than just soldiers, and I want you to tell people that,’ he said. “We were poets and we were actors and we were writers, and we were fathers and sons and brothers.” He said, “We were young men and women with big ideas and we weren’t just people that died on the ﬁeld.” And, for me, it just put such a face to that time, not just for the Ukrainians, but for everyone who fought and died during those war years. It put such a real voice to them, that they were more than just those months or years they spent on the battleﬁeld. They were people with hopes and dreams and backgrounds, and futures cut short.”
Like A River From Its Course recently won the ACFW Carol Award for Best Historical Fiction. Likewise, the novel was a ﬁnalist for the ECPA Christy Award in both the debut novel and historical categories. The book is available wherever books are sold.