The Last Green Valley
It’s a question of survival in 1944 as Emil and Adeline Martel forge west with their two young sons, fleeing Stalin under the protection of the German Army, a situation that Mark Sullivan, the author, is careful to show is repulsive to the Martels. The family is part of the German community that the Czar had invited to Ukraine a century earlier because of their skill for growing winter wheat, which fed the Russian Empire. Under Stalin, many of the farmers were deported to Siberia. That and other policies led to millions of Ukrainians dying in the 1932–33 famine, a tragedy that was also part of the Martels’ history.
Sullivan brings the couple and their extended family to life, complete with their triumphs and failings; sacrifice, love, bitterness, self-interest and courage.
He explains in an author’s note that the novel is based on the story of a family living barely two miles from his home in Montana. Although he researched the story carefully, he considers the book historical fiction rather than narrative nonfiction because he filled in missing pieces with his imagination. What he doesn’t say is that he’s got an extraordinary imagination, paired with a real talent for creating realistic scenes, both hair-raising times of danger—like being strafed—and intimate moments of pain.
This story feels true. At one point Emil steals a workman’s clothes in order to escape to the West, to survive and find his family. Adeline does worse, to survive and keep her sons safe. Sullivan does a good job of making their decisions understandable and showing how they overcame the odds to land in Montana.