The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh

The Lost Year uses multiple voices to narrate a sad chapter of history: Stalin’s deliberate starving of Ukraine.

The Lost Year: A Survival Story of the Ukrainian Famine by Katherine Marsh. Roaring Brook, 2023, 368 pages.

Reading level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 12-15

History at eye-level

Matthew is confined to his New Jersey house by an overprotective government and overattentive mother, while his divorced father is reporting on the Covid crisis in Europe. After finishing his online schoolwork, Matthew has nothing to do but level up in Zelda, but his mother has other ideas. His great-grandmother GG has moved in with them, along with boxes of memorabilia from her nursing home. Matthew can go through them with her and help her sort out those items worth keeping. As she’s 100 years old, there might even be some historical interest. So Mom says, but a 13-year-old will need some convincing. Little does he suspect GG’s effects will contain a fascinating, gut-wrenching story of the previous century.

GG was born in Ukraine and arrived in America as a teenager, but first she was a survivor. She is one of three cousins: Helen, growing up in Brooklyn, and Mila, the privileged daughter of a Communist party official in Kyiv. The third is Nadiya, victim of one of Stalin’s greatest crimes: the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainian landowners and peasants. This is a grim chapter burned into the national memory as “the Holodomor.” As Matthew pieces together their story the girls emerge with their own perspectives, leading to the revelation of a family secret that only GG knows.

Standing up for truth

Though told in a tone and language suitable for middle-graders, and not overly graphic, the subject matter may be too much for sensitive readers. That warning aside, the novel exposes one of American journalism’s greatest scandals: the failure of its most respected outlets, chiefly the New York Times, to report the truth of the Holodomor while covering up for Stalin. The main culprit was Moscow Bureau Chief Walter Duranty, who received a Pulitzer for a series of articles on Soviet “successes” that were outright lies. 

Where The Last Year falters is in drawing conclusions about “fake news” in today’s world. Matthew’s journalist dad warns him that deviations from the conventional line about the pandemic are similar in type, if not magnitude, to Duranty and other Stalin apologists. But information that’s come out since Katherine Marsh was writing this book show that the virology experts more than likely got a lot wrong. The truth is slippery, and often needs time to emerge. This story can lead to interesting discussions about that, as well as understanding the troubled history between Russia and Ukraine.


One of the girls finds deeper meaning in her Orthodox faith while another becomes an atheist. That can lead to interesting discussions, too.

Overall Rating: 4

Worldview/moral value: 4

Literary/artistic value: 4

Read more about our ratings here.                 

Also at Redeemed Reader

Reviews: We gave high marks to Katherine Marsh’s Jepp, Who Defied the Stars and Nowhere Boy.

Reviews: More Soviet history is coming to light for young readers, and that’s a good thing. See our reviews of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, The Genius under the Table, I Must Betray You, and Between Shades of Gray.

Reflection: Don’t miss Hayley’s “Lessons in Liberty and Compassion” after a two-week visit to Ukraine in 2014.

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