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Book review

Book review: 'Helmi’s Shadow' traces epic journey from Russia to the U.S. West

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'Helmi's Shadow'

"Helmi's Shadow: A Journey of Survival from Russia to East Asia to the American West," by David Horgan; University of Nevada Press (272 pages, paperback)

Editor’s note: The 16th annual High Plains Book Awards recognizes regional literary works which examine and reflect life on the High Plains, including the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The Creative Nonfiction Award recognizes books that present factual information on people, places or events using experiential techniques often associated with fiction, such as personal observation, narrative forms, and dramatic renderings of events.

Subtitled as “A Journey of Survival from Russia to East Asia and the American West,” David Horgan’s book “Helmi’s Shadow” is a Creative Nonfiction finalist in the High Plains Book Awards. This may well have won an award for Most Sweeping Saga as well if there were such a category. The book compels one to read nonstop.

Helmi and her mother Rachel Koskin lived their formative years escaping both Hitler and Stalin in Russia by escaping into Japan and China during the years when Russian Jews were continually hunted down and persecuted in the 1930s and 1940s. What does it take to survive what so many others could not survive? David Horgan, Helmi’s son, searched for this answer as he retraced the steps Helmi and Rachel took to eventually find security and a small sense of peace in Reno, Nevada.

While this book serves as a haunting memoir, it also quickly becomes a fascinating history of the conflicts between China and Japan, of life in Russia, and, of course, events in the Second World War. Horgan’s research is meticulous and enticing, with detailed maps and rare photos which deliver rich substance to his warm, inviting narrative. Horgan is admirable in how quickly (and simply) he braids both personal and historical context to the challenges his mother and grandmother were forced to confront.

While this memoir builds upon Helmi’s childhood in East Asia, it finds answers there as well for how Helmi was able to create a new life in the United States after the war. Her mother was a firm believer in books and language, and this serves Helmi well as fluency in other languages help her reach past what might have otherwise remained a confining life in East Asia. While we learn the practical details of her survival, the ability (or lack thereof) to overcome the shadows of one’s past remains the compelling theme of this narrative. As Horgan discovers in his own journey tracing Helmi’s past, long-term trauma is not easily cancelled by a newfound sense of security.

Sherry O’Keefe, a great-granddaughter of a Montana pioneer, is the author of two books of poetry and three YA biographies.

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