Mr. Elder is a fan of the Scribbler and after reading a post featuring an Australian author – Lana Kortchik – he reached out to me regarding his debut novel – Dear American Brother. I’m glad he did.
His novel has garnered great reviews and testimonials. I received a copy and it’s a compelling story, well researched, well written.
He has graciously agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing an excerpt from his novel.
Joe J. Elder spent his formative years in a German Russian community in Saskatchewan. His penchant for history took him to Germany several times to record the experiences of the relatives who survived the Stalin Era. A tour by train from St. Petersburg to Gulag Camp Perm 36 in the Urals, and 1989/2006 visits to the ancestral villages near the Black Sea in Ukraine were highlights in his quest for first-hand information for DEAR AMERICAN BROTHER. Joe also co-produced and wrote the narration for the acclaimed documentary, Germans from Russia on the Canadian Prairies. Several of his articles have appeared in magazines highlighting Germans from Russia, one winning a prestigious Story of the Year award. He enjoys an active, full life in Calgary, Alberta. His passions are writing, playing sports of all kinds, adventure travel with his wife and, most of all, spending time with his family.
4Q: Let’s talk about your novel. Give us a brief outline of what to expect and what inspired the story.
JE: My maternal grandmother departed Russia in 1908 as a sixteen-year-old, travelling with an older sister who had recently married into a family on the verge of immigrating to Saskatchewan. The next year two other sisters were sent to North Dakota, sponsored by an uncle already living in Harvey. The Russian government was determined to stem the tidal wave of emigration from Russia at that time; the two sisters escaped, on foot, across the Romanian border under the cover of darkness, as they had been denied exit visas. The intensions were to eventually send all members of the family to America, but the father died suddenly the next year, grounding the remaining family.
All this happened long before I was born, but only in my later years, as with many people, I developed a keen interest in my family history, and the difficulties associated with leaving one’s homeland and settling the bare prairies. My grandmother was no longer alive, but during a four-month tour of Europe in 1989, my wife and I managed to arrange a train trip from Vienna Austria to Odessa Ukraine, only 50 KM from my grandmother’s birth place. I obtained permission, partly by downright lying about my destination, to rent a car and drive to the village. The Intourist agent was strict with her directives and several times that day I envisioned spending time in a Soviet jail. Never-the-less, I retuned unscathed to Western Europe, but my desire to tell this story had taken hold of my soul and wouldn’t let go. I felt compelled to seek out the fate of the German-Russian people who were trapped in the Soviet Union and suffered the insanities of the Communist Revolution and later, Josef Stalin.
DEAR AMERICAN BROTHER delves into the tragedy and sorrow of the Soviet citizenry and the welcomed arrival of Hitler’s invading forces, woven into a story of two brothers separated as children, and their desperate struggle to be reunited.
4Q: Your website tells us about your extensive research for the background of the story. A train trip from St. Petersburg, Russia to Gulag Perm 36 in the Ural Mountains. Tell us about that experience.
JE: The story rattled around in my head for years before I began writing in 2002, but I eventually determined that in order to adequately depict Siberia and the wicked Gulag system, I should have first-hand information. By this time I had contact with several of my mother’s cousins who had been deported to Siberia following WWII, but since Glasnost and Perestroika became household words, were now living in Germany. My wife and I visited them in Ludwigshafen for several days and noted their personal experiences. From there, we flew to St. Petersburg and boarded a regular freight and passenger train bound for Ekaterinburg in Western Siberia. After five days, near the former closed city of Perm, we disembarked. With the help of a hotel clerk who understood a smattering of English, we arranged for a taxi and were driven 40 KM to the last operating Gulag political prison in the USSR, now converted to a museum. No one spoke English, however, the grimness of the institution needed no interpretation.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.
I was likely twelve when, after asking a casual question of my mother, I learned that my grandmother had been born near Odessa, in Ukraine. “I thought we were German,” I responded with a bit of disbelief in my voice.
“It’s a long story,” Mother replied. “We’re Germans from Russia. At the time Gramma lived there most of Ukraine was called South Russia, and Catherine the Great had brought in German farmers. Just like when Canada brought in settlers to …” I could sense a history lesson coming and made some excuse about needing the bathroom. I regret that I didn’t stay that day and hear her out. Sixty years later, I still regret it.
4Q: In your opinion, what makes a great story?
JE: A great story needs a solid plot, engaging dialogue, and a protagonist that can walk off the page and join you in your living room.
4Q: What’s next for Joe Elder, the author?
JE: I am working on a sequel, mostly set in Siberia, as my story is not completely dealt with in the first book.
4Q: When you’re feeling most creative, where might we find you when you are writing, your writing habits?
JE: I have my office in a secluded corner of the basement, away from outside distractions, that is, until my wife deems an event to be of significant proportions.
4Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
JE: Lord, I already might have said too much.
An Excerpt from Dear American Brother.
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission.)
Mama and Loni had already gone to bed when Uncle Heinz arrived home after checking on Aunt Monica’s family in Mannheim. “They’re not happy about the communists’ ruling, either, but everybody’s all right,” he reported.
Grandpa anxiously related to him the solution proposed by the Chornov Civic Council. “Those Bolsheviks don’t know the strength of our Kutschurgan colony,” he said, puffing furiously on his pipe. “We Germans in this area always stick together to the end. Four of us landowners and Philip Klatt are going to Odessa on Monday along with representatives from the other six villages to protest this new land policy. What do you—”
Suddenly, the door porch rattled and Gus Vetter poked his head inside. “Quick, guys. Come see this.”
We dashed down our flagstone path to the gate. A long line of men, rifle barrels glinting in the moonlight, reined their steeds onto Middle Avenue and cantered into the night along Pototski Road. “I bet that arrogant Arshloch Kronchin is going out to knock Bauman down a peg,” Gus stated.
Grandpa shook his head. “Benedict’s already got most of Chornov’s men as guards, and a lot of our guns, too, so there’s no way we’d be much help to him.”
Nevertheless, Uncle Heinz and Gus rode to Pototski Estate while Grandpa stayed behind, pacing the floor. He neglected to send me to bed and I certainly wasn’t going to leave the room voluntarily. Peering out the window reminded me of the time Uncle Pius asked our parents if Kurt could go with them to America. I realized that my thoughts over the last few days hadn’t included my brother. Did Kurt still think about us—about me—every day?
Uncle Heinz finally stumbled into the kitchen in the middle of the night. He dragged himself to a chair, his forehead beaded with perspiration. “We didn’t go too close because of the shooting. Then we saw the workers’ quarters go up in flames and …” He put his hands over his face and fell silent.
I hoped that my friend Hubert Bauman was safe.
Grandpa patted my uncle’s shoulder. “Thank goodness Lizbet went back to Elsass after our friend Dieter was called to the army. God help me, who would have thought it’d get this violent? And Heinz, were any of the village men that Bauman hired hurt?”
“Apparently, they grabbed their guns and abandoned their posts when Kronchin’s men rode up and started shooting.”
“Ya, the problem is there’s no other road out of Pototski, except through Chornov. I think we should warn everybody, just in case Kronchin and his bunch want to push their weight around here.” Grandpa turned to me. “Hans, run to as many houses as you can. Start with the Freys and go all the way up our street, then back down Church Street. Heinz, you go the other way. I’ll take the east end.”
Uncle Heinz pulled me to his side. In his eyes, I saw panic barely restrained. “And tell them to hide the women and girls.”
Mist from the pond drifted across the street in eerie black shapes as dawn crept over the horizon. Near the far end of my assigned route Herr Bauman’s carriage, trailed by a dozen armed men, appeared on Pototski Road. Something inside me screamed, ‘Run for home!’ but there wasn’t time. I quickly climbed a linden tree and disappeared among the autumn foliage.
The closed carriage made a wide turn in front of the church and came to a halt below me. I slowly, quietly, climbed higher, my fingers fumbling for grip. The door burst open and two burly men wrestled Herr Bauman from the carriage. His hands were bound behind his back, a torn sleeve of his stained rumpled shirt flapped at his side, his left ear hung loose. Dark red seeped from an open wound on the top of his bald head. He blinked coagulated blood and morning sunshine from his swollen eyes as one of the men forced him up the steps to the elevated luggage platform at the rear of the carriage. Igor Kronchin climbed onto the platform and stood beside the captive. “Kuzma, go ring the church bell,” he ordered one of his men. “And Attila, do you still have that rope in your saddlebag?”
My heart pounded as the one called Attila climbed onto the carriage roof. He knotted the thick rope to a sturdy branch above Herr Bauman’s head and dropped the other end to the platform. When the administrator slipped a crude noose around his prisoner’s neck, my right hand involuntarily clutched my throat.
The ringing church bell attracted the bleary-eyed village men. They jostled with the guards and shouted for the release of Bauman, who appeared confused and steadfastly gazed at the white cross on Saint Gustav’s steeple. Yuri, Oleg, and the other Russian harvest workers banished by Bauman gathered near the carriage, but my friend Ivan stood leaning against a tree at the fringe of the crowd. I saw Grandpa and Uncle Heinz, their heads turning in every direction, but I couldn’t risk calling out to them.
Father Heisser hurried from the rectory as quickly as his arthritic hips would allow, shouting as he approached the carriage. “Keep your men out of my church! And release this man! He is a child of God.”
Kronchin glared down from his position beside Herr Bauman. “There’s no place for your God in the Soviet state, just as there is no longer any place for this ruthless capitalist.”
The mounted men formed a circle around the carriage, forcing back both the villagers and the agitated priest. Herr Bauman teetered on his feet as the nervous team caused the carriage to sway. He tried to grasp the edge of the roof behind him, barely able to stay upright. I prayed someone would undo the noose.
The administrator seized the opportunity to condemn Herr Bauman and all estate owners. “These rich men, these kulaks, are nothing but parasites and must be removed from Soviet society,” he said. He spat on Showman’s dusty boots. “This … this despicable person’s land and all his possessions are now the property of the People. And his family has been disinherited by the government. Anyone who aids them will be judged guilty of this man’s crimes and sentenced to a similar fate—banishment to hard labor in the Arctic.” After a pause, Kronchin’s face opened in a grin. “To save me the bother of taking him to Odessa, who wants to lay the whip to this fine pair of horses? Come on, surely this man has enemies.”
“I have reason to do it,” Katya Kurganov screamed. “My Boris was so proud to be your horseman and you wouldn’t pay a measly bribe to keep him out of the army. He died there and you owe him … and you owe his boy Ivan!”
Herr Bauman worked his lips as if to answer her. At the same moment, I heard a distinctive whir and saw a small stone ricochet off the rump of one of the horses in the team. As the frightened animal plunged forward, Kronchin and Herr Bauman lost their balance and tumbled from the platform. The rope around Herr Bauman’s neck emitted an angry hum and snapped taut. The thick tree branch bent under his weight until his feet almost touched the ground, and then it re-bounded, flipping Herr Bauman into the air. A shower of yellow leaves fluttered around his twitching body as he bounced at the end of the rope like a rag doll.
Thank you for being our guest this week Joe. All the best in your future writing.
For you readers wanting to know more about Joe Elder and his novel, please follow these links: