The War Below

Written by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Review by Cindy Vallar

Hidden among corpses, Luka Barukovich anxiously waits for the truck to drive through the gates. It is his only chance for life and freedom, yet escaping the slave labor camp means he must leave behind his closest friend, who urged him to flee. Someday, if he survives, he will find her, but now he embarks on the long journey home where he hopes to reunite with his father, whom the Soviets sent to Siberia. Getting to Kyiv is fraught with danger, especially for an eleven-year-old clad only in a hospital gown and with a thigh wound crudely stitched by a Nazi doctor after a bomb exploded at the metal-works factory.

Luka takes refuge in a barn, where he uses the knowledge of natural remedies that his father and grandfather taught him to tend his injury. In need of food and clothing to protect him from the wintry chill, he risks entering the farmhouse. The old couple living there catches him, but instead of turning him in, they share their food and home. After being so long deprived, their kindness seems a godsend, until they lock him in a bedroom with an SS officer’s uniform in the closet.

The War Below takes place during the last two years of World War II, and while written for children, even adults will find this a riveting novel. Skrypuch’s chilling portrayal of escape vividly captures life on the run amidst the savagery of war. Her characters are skillfully drawn and deftly show that sometimes we must do the unthinkable to survive. She also introduces a lesser-known aspect of this conflict—the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and their fight against the prejudices that drive others to enslave and kill. In spite of heart-wrenching sorrow, vicious slaughter, and unexpected trickery, hope remains eternal.