Learning From Those Who’ve Endured: The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan
Mark Sullivan admits that “after the publication of Beneath a Scarlet Sky [Lake Union Publishing, 2017], some people said I’d never find a story like it again. I knew in my heart they were wrong.” Sullivan decided that the success of Beneath a Scarlet Sky, which is based on a true story of one young Italian’s efforts to thwart the Nazis, was down to four qualities; it was Inspiring, Moving, Healing and Transformational.
These inherent qualities were what he was after for his next book, and he found them for The Last Green Valley (Lake Union Publishing, May, 2021) by drawing on another true story: how, in March 1944, the Martel family, Adeline, Emil and their two young sons, make “The Long Trek”.
“Hearing the Martels’ story for the first time,” he said, “I knew within an hour that Adeline and Emil’s story met all the criteria and then some.”
The Martels live in the Ukraine and are of German heritage. They are given the choice of remaining where they are and facing the risk of suffering under the approaching Russian forces and the possibility of being sent to Siberia, or allowing the Nazis to lead them to another country where pure blood Germans will be protected. They decide to go with the Nazis, with the intention of ultimately making their own way to freedom – to the snow-covered mountains and green valleys that Adeline had once seen in a painting.
Emil becomes separated from the rest of the family but both parties are determined to find each other again and to attain their dream. Their journeys are very different. Emil is incarcerated for much of the time in Poltava, a Soviet prison camp, where he experienced indescribable suffering, but from where he eventually escaped and was finally reunited with his family, who themselves had had a traumatic and terrifying ordeal.
Writing their story has changed his life, Sullivan says, both emotionally and spiritually. “Depicting the story forced me to delve deep into the emotions each of the characters had to have been feeling almost constantly. I had to be vulnerable enough to allow those emotions to well up in me and put them down on paper. Their story also taught me the power of fighting to keep control of your emotions instead of panicking in the face of calamity, chaos, or tragedy. The Martels were repeatedly pounded on their remarkable journey, yet they were tough enough to swallow the hardship and not succumb to the devastating emotion of helplessness. They all had moments of doubt and weakness, but their grit — their ability to keep going despite all odds — moved me, made me realize how easy we have things today.”
Sullivan has no expectation of changing society with his book; he is “more interested in impacting individuals and how they look at life.” He believes that relating the atrocities of World War II, and how individuals endured and overcame the challenges, still has great relevance today. “Many kids, especially in the USA, have grown up insanely privileged to the point where they take their freedoms for granted. I think it’s important to show them what life was like historically, especially when tyrants reigned, so they understand when their freedoms are threatened before someone with a bigger stick tries to take them away. Atrocities are symptomatic of diseased societies. Just as doctors must learn to recognize cancer, I think people of all ages need to learn to recognize totalitarianism in all its malignant forms.”
While Sullivan acknowledges that there are other published books that tell similar stories, he insists these stories must keep being told, otherwise “people begin to forget, to get complacent, not only about their rights and freedoms, but to the notion that anything brutal like World War II is even possible. But more importantly, I think humans need to hear these kinds of stories because everyone faces hardship, everyone faces tragedy, and we can learn from those who have endured in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.” Sullivan believes that the experience of 2020 has meant that “The entire world has been challenged in the last fourteen months. Everyone has been on their own difficult journey through the pandemic. It’s my hope that the Martels’ story reminds readers of what humans are capable of, the challenges they can endure if they believe in grace and hold tight to a dream, a cherished vision of their future in their hearts, and then relentlessly pursue that vision until they see it realized before their eyes.”
There are many parts of the story that are truly gut-wrenching and almost unbearable to read. Sullivan admits that he found some of the writing “daunting to the point where I feared some aspects of the story.” There is one scene that Sullivan found particularly traumatic to write, where Emil is ordered to shoot Jews to prove his loyalty to Germany. Sullivan realised that “I had to deal with the issue head on, that readers were not only going to see Emil at a massacre site, but they would also witness a battle for his soul, a battle which would become even more powerful when I later discovered that no one was ever shot for refusing to kill a Jew during the Holocaust. Writing those scenes set in the ravine outside Dubosary was one of the most difficult experiences of my career.”
Sullivan’s descriptions of the family’s depravations are very credible. Sullivan admits “I’ve never starved, but I had the interviews with Emil and Adeline, and I read a lot about Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukraine in 1932-33. As a younger man I dug a lot of ditches and I also lived for two years in northern Niger on the ancient caravan route between Tripoli and Timbuktu, so I understood how to write about hard physical labor and suffering in the heat. And I’ve lived in Montana for more than twenty years. I knew how to write about cold.”
When the reader finally closes the cover of this book, they cannot but feel the same as Sullivan, who said that “I was and am in awe of [the Martels’] courage.”
About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton’s ambition is to bring Mary De Morgan, Victorian writer of fairy tales, out of the shadows. Marilyn has fictionalised her life in The Jewel Garden. Her second published novel, Song of the Nightingale, tells of the fate of two young castrati and was the Fiction Winner of the 2020 International Rubery Book Award. Marilyn has recently finished the second book of a trilogy that will tell of three generations of women who use the genre of the fairytale to tell their her-stories but who face sometimes insurmountable obstacles to get their voices heard.