Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Death Steppe" by Judy Bruce

Death Steppe:
A World War II Novel
by Judy Bruce

This is the first in a special series on author Judy Bruce. Today we feature Death Steppe: A World War II Novel. You can read an excerpt from the book, my review, and a guest post by Judy, giving us an insight into this World War II story.

This World War II novel takes place in 1944, during Germany’s retreat from the western Soviet Union. The story follows the lives of a Russian war widow, Elena, a dissident, Christian, and black marketeer, as she serves as a medic on the front lines, and a disillusioned German lieutenant, Halder, a former professor and concentration camp officer, as he fights in a losing effort. In time, Elena and others, are forced into service as temporary navigators in an all-female regiment to the Red Army air force. After Elena’s plane crashes, she finds the injured Halder from the squadron she helped bomb. As enemies, the injured Elena and Halder alternate between helping and nearly killing each other. Eventually, the desperate soldiers discover an unexpected bond. Together they embark on a turbulent journey as lovers and disheartened deserters.

Chapter 1
Was I on my way to death? The possibility made my heart race. Breathing deeply to calm myself, I caught a heavy dose of truck exhaust as it wafted into the boxcar, mixing with the man-stink of a dozen filthy soldiers. The pitching movement of the train mocked the upheaval in my stomach—at every station the train jerked to a stop then lurched forward at departure, roiling and churning my insides at every jolt.
What the hell was I doing here? Yes, I believed in hell because I believed in God—which a good communist wasn’t supposed to do—and did my best to be a bad one. I really hated bullshit, so living the U.S.S.R. was excruciating, as if Soviet Socialism was a dull knife stabbed into my guts since childhood, always twisting and digging deeper. If I’d been the screaming sort, I would have let one loose. In this boxcar, I felt like a caged rebel—yet, I was too proud to permit anyone to know the extent of my disgust and despair.
As I stewed over my circumstances, I twirled a clump of my wavy hair over the index finger of my left hand. To distract myself from the rim of the barrel cutting into the back of my legs, I shifted my attention to the only other woman in the boxcar full of Red Army soldiers, an early-graying woman of thirty-five or so, who stood at the other end of the car, biting her nails. What was her story? Was she going someplace scary? Suddenly, a hard turn made me bash my head on the wall. Once I succeeded in stifling a grimace and righting myself on the barrel again, I gripped my satchel more tightly, mindful that each day I clutched at a fistful of life. Now, as the train charged onward, I felt my grasp weakening; the little control I possessed over my life was pouring through the gaps in my fingers.
After another hour, the train labored to a stop at a station. When several rowdy Russian soldiers climbed into the boxcar, the floorboards creaked with the extra weight. With the addition of more strangers, I ached with longing to be back home with my family—what was left of them—sitting around the kitchen table with a cup of sugary tea, listening to a story from my papa, and laughing with my mama. But those people and that possibility became more remote with each frigid, snow-covered mile. Every day would be a fight; if I was to get back to them I needed to survive in this new unknown. 
The boisterous soldiers jostled each other like schoolboys, until one by one they fell silent as they noted the grim silence of the haggard veterans. When the soldier next to me said, “Not one step back,” I thought he meant to mock Stalin’s grand order, but then I understood the soldier merely cautioned a boarding rider not to back into the corner where the urine bucket sat. The newcomer had on a uniform—new, with the creases still denting the stiff, manure-colored pants. The young soldier nodded at the warning, then, like many others, stared out at the nothingness of the open land through the gap in the wall, a crude window with bars that kept the box car cold and lessened the odor of urine and grimy men. After a couple of moments, I realized I knew that voice. I quickly studied his face. He paused then returned my gaze.
“It is very cold,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
The soldier nodded then we looked away from each other. Angered by my lack of diligent observation, my face flushed hot. Clearly, I should have recognized him earlier and kept my distance. Wondering what his name was, I felt sad that I only knew him as “19,” his black market code name. By necessity, our dealings had been simply business in nature, without a word of pleasantry beyond a stiff greeting. My last sight of him took place at one of my clandestine Bible studies, four or five months ago. Though no one knew who had arranged it, 19 had arrived at the supposedly secret meeting with a box full of Bibles. The sum of four of the purchases became my commission. Although I knew we would never speak or acknowledge each other again, I hoped he had a family that cared for him and wished him well. Venturing a glance over at his hands, which were chapped and creased with dirt, I realized I had only seen him in the darkness or by distant lamplight. Now that I had seen him clearly, I concluded his family observed Shabbat, lit the menorah, and had probably observed the mourning period of shiva more than once.   
Later that morning, the train jolted the passengers as it began to brake for the station. Soon after the train lurched to a stop, my guts cart wheeled when someone unlocked the doors from the outside. Why the hell did those communist bastards lock us in? I had been caged. But I needed to keep my wits. If I ever stopped thinking, I’d be lost—that’s when they take over. Then I’ll be a sheep like the rest of these louts. 
“Medics disembark!”
Lugging my suitcase, I worked my way through the train car and into a wind so raw it caught my breath and numbed my thoughts. I followed a group of men and women to a gray, pre-fabricated building. A half hour later, I stood in a room full of wobbly bunk beds made of splintery wood and gray metal lockers that failed to lock. First, I stared at the thick-soled, black boots I had just laced; then I ran my hand over the coarse wool of the manure-brown shirt and pants of the infantry. I had entered another life—one of frightening danger and menacing uncertainty. Don’t stop thinking.
A pair of heavy boots stopped outside in the hall, breaking into my thoughts. A stout man in his mid-thirties, with dark tousled hair, another medic-in-training, glanced in at me. I snatched up my coat and helmet then headed for the hallway, now bustling with civilians awkward in their stiff military garb.
“My name is Boris Surkov,” he said.
“Elena Nevskaya.”
“Where did you come from?”
“I’m from Smolensk. The city hospital there. Strange, they bring me out here to train in combat then they’ll send me back to the same city.”
“Nobody’s told me where I’m going or when.”
We stepped outside into the sting of cold and the chaos of training camp. I tried and failed to find some method in the tumult of groups dashing from one station then to another. The frightened looks on their faces made obvious the fact these were medics, not people meant for battle. Were they even meant to be medics? Was I? Fear welled up in my throat and stuck like gravel. Think. Breathe. Think.
“Well, you’re no nurse,” said Surkov.
Annoyed by the persistent stranger, I asked, “Why do you say that?”
“They keep the nurses in the hospitals. They don’t give them guns.”
I nodded. “I’m a literature professor with a little medical training.”
In truth, I remained livid that they had yanked me out of the classroom to be trained on cleaning bedpans in a hospital then sent to combat training for some unknown destination. Yet, I must not give myself away; perhaps this man was earnestly full of Marxist bullshit. And worse, he was obviously an extrovert—a person who would act like a close friend one day then forget your name the next day when someone more interesting came along.
Within a few minutes, a group of us knelt in the snow, practicing loading and unloading our rifles and revolvers. As soon as the supervising officer moved away, Surkov caught my attention with a wave. He tossed something metal to me. I reached into the snow and located a flask. After I yanked off the stopper, I sniffed hard. Oh, yes, vodka. Waiting until the closest officers had both turned their backs, I swigged the alcohol. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth course through me.
“Thanks, I was freezing,” I said.
“Quick, take another.”
I took a quick drink then tossed the bottle back to him.
“You’re no stranger to this stuff,” he said as he crawled closer. “And you know how to handle a rifle.”
“I used to go hunting with my father and brothers when I was younger. Better days.”
“Are you a good shot?” asked Surkov.
I shrugged. “I never had the heart to kill any animals. But I did all right at target practice.”
“Looks like you’ll get your chance quite soon.”
The medics in the group ahead of us scrambled from the firing range. Officers barked orders at the group as they ran from the field. An officer kicked snow at us as he shouted the order to fill in the vacated firing positions. Sprawled in the wet snow, my group fired ice-cold rifles at targets, bales of hay with a paper drawing of a body draped down one side. The officers cursed and kicked the poorest of the shooters. The deafening sound of the gunfire numbed my senses and quickened my breathing as two of the officers moved in my direction. I reloaded my rifle with trembling hands.
Over the thunder of the rifles, Surkov managed to warn me: “One of the men in my barracks told me he heard about a medic that shot so well, they sent him to the infantry.”
I stared at Surkov in disbelief. The officers trudged toward us. God in heaven, what was I doing here?
Surkov moved away just before a voice barked: “Our glorious soldiers have pushed the invaders away from Moscow and freed Leningrad. Comrades, we must support our brave troops and save Mother Russia.” The sergeant, his face red from shouting and stiff with cold, turned to me. “You there, fire now.”
I gulped then took aim at the target, but moved my rifle to the left as I fired, missing the entire target. I fired again, only nicking the edge of the left shoulder. The officer stomped up beside me.
“You incompetent excuse for a soldier! Can’t you hit anything?” He kicked me hard in the leg. “Pathetic. I expected it.”
Swallowing my retort and gritting my teeth, I watched Surkov’s lousy shooting and subsequent abuse. Once the officers moved out of vision of my target, I gained Surkov’s attention, aimed my gun, and hit the target square in the forehead. Surkov smiled. The fight in me had returned.
“Maggot,” I muttered, rubbing my leg.
As I waited for my next order, I spotted a communist officer, standing out of the wind yet shivering in his re-trimmed hat and coat. I hated those bombastic pigs, especially that major that sent me here. My friend Nastia, who was scared of Party members and men in general, said whenever she saw a uniformed communist, she imagined them naked for a good laugh. I tried it, but it just made me nauseated. Fat heads, fat bellies—they all stunk of imported cigarettes and high-class vodka they received as perks.
In the twilight, I trudged back toward the barracks. With only a few iced-over poplars lining the black mud road to the east, land stretched before me in every direction and it frightened me. I stared at the gray sky that hesitated; I stopped and waited a few moments then the snow fell, eager to cover me and the ground around me. For a moment, I imagined a line of approaching Germans, monsters in green uniforms, ready to fire. Shaking off my fears of the impossible, for the camp was far from any battles, I looked out over the steppe and I saw nothing—no familiar faces, no fire-lit homes, no web of streets, no place to hide—just an endless expanse of white. Even the rare morning of winter sun had given me no comfort in my new life, my new world. Why they hadn’t just left me alone? First, the iron fist took me from my hard-earned work; then they sent me to learn how to bandage injuries and clean up vomit; after that, the faceless bureaucrats assigned me to a hospital to watch people die; now I was learning how to survive near battle. Then it struck me—they were preparing me to kill. My heart thudded against my ribs.
I wanted to go home.
Still, I hated the German monsters even more than I hated the Bolshevik bastards. At least communists were human. At the hospital, I had seen the damage of the Nazi bullets as they tore through flesh and bones, the fires that scorched faces and skin, and the explosions that ripped legs from bodies. Nazism hammered the earth from a poisonous black mist, bludgeoning and shrouding all good as it covered the continent in evil.
I felt on edge the rest of that evening. Enervated, I climbed into my rickety bed with the sound of rifle fire reverberating in my head. I guess I didn’t twirl my hair that night—I awoke the next morning with it clutched in my fists and my knees pulled up to my chest. Breathe. Think. No, don’t cry, breathe and breathe again.
After two weeks of marching, target practice, gun-care instruction, and latrine cleaning, I was back on a train. Sitting on a pile of straw on a filthy wood floor, I scanned the faces of the dozen men and three women in my car—several were hardened soldiers, dirty and smelly, others were medics like me, raw and fearful, cringing at the sound of explosions in the distance. I tugged my brown gloves over my pale hands. They were slightly broad yet strong and differed greatly from my mother’s long, bony hands, rough and red from work and hot water, quick and busy when nervous. Though thirty-two years old, I had been forced out of my dinky apartment after Danilov died at Stalingrad and back into my childhood bedroom. Now, on a frigid January day in 1944, I didn’t even have that—I had a train hurling me toward the contents of my nightmares—faceless German monsters in green uniforms with booming, black rifles and long, bloody knives. 
As the train reached full speed, a soldier sitting on the floor gained my attention. I studied his whiskered, weather-hardened face, yet could not read his expression. I wondered if he thought of home or the next battle. Perhaps he was so inured to fighting that he no longer knew fear; maybe he had resigned himself to death. As I silently queried him, the soldier glanced up at me. I dropped my eyes, but not before I saw exhaustion and despair, and something else—a longing, or a regret, perhaps. When Vlady returned home injured, he chose his words carefully and minded his manner. I considered my brother brave. I began to wonder if he felt the desperation and resignation I saw in this soldier’s face.
I ventured another glance at the soldier. He still looked at me, though his expression had changed. He knew he had been observed and now guarded his demeanor. I averted my eyes, choosing instead the view of the gray sky through the window. What did my face reveal? Fear, certainly, but nothing of my disaffected life. 
Finally, we were jarred to a stop. I jumped from the train with the others as no steps were provided. My numb and cramped legs, weakened by the long ride, could not prevent me from falling into the slushy snow as I landed. Embarrassed, I jumped to my feet. 
“You’re a better shot,” said Surkov, who approached from another car. 
I smiled, pleased to see a familiar stranger. I observed the man standing with Surkov.
“Elena Nevskaya, meet Semarenko.” Surkov turned to the tall medic beside him. “What’s your first name?”
“Yevgeny,” answered the sharp-featured, light-haired man. He picked up my duffle bag from the snow and slung it over his shoulder.
“Thank you, but I should carry it.” I took the bag from Semarenko. “You see, if I don’t act like I can take care of myself then I’ll be washing bedpans all day. You understand, don’t you? It was very nice of you.”
Semarenko nodded. The three of us turned to the shouts of an officer several yards away. We moved with the other medics past the train station then climbed into several waiting trucks. Surkov pushed away a medic to allow Semarenko to get on the truck with us. We settled on the floor of the filthy truck. The canvas roof and sides did little to diminish the cold. The ride was bumpy through the snow and mud on the pock-marked roads. The day’s light began to wane.
“Nevskaya, Semarenko, I have a confession.” Surkov squelched a grin.
“By all means, tell us,” I said.
“Last night I broke into the officers’ mess and stole three bottles of vodka.”
Semarenko and I burst out laughing. Surkov maintained his seriousness.
“Tonight, we will drink together,” said Surkov.
Semarenko said with a smirk, “We drink together, we can be heroes together, and maybe we die together.”
Surkov chortled then slapped him on the back. An explosion accentuated the tall man’s final remark and deadened Surkov’s levity. I pulled my bag close at the sound of the nearby shelling. The two men appeared equally frightened, heartening me and validating my fears.
“But tonight, we drink,” I said with a smile. 
Surkov tapped his duffle. “We need to keep this safe.”
However, our spirits quickly deflated as a new round of explosions erupted, shaking the ground around us and surely the entire planet. The ride continued and the road worsened as the truck bounced and jerked, sloshing my meager breakfast around in my stomach. I concluded the driver was insane as he maintained an inappropriate speed for the conditions, though we seemed to be moving away from the shelling. Eventually, the truck slid to a grinding halt. The doors squeaked open. As I was directed to my barracks by a soldier, Surkov pointed to the west side of the hospital. I nodded and moved away to my building as I looked back at the hospital, a two-story rectangular box covered in cracked gray siding. The sound of shrieking brakes heralded the arrival of three mud-splattered ambulances, which halted at the east wing of the building. Medics burst out of the building and out of the trucks. Soon, stretchers streamed into the building. I felt a pang of guilt about my selfish plan to relax and drink the first evening. 
The women’s barracks were musty, cramped and dim, with unpainted plywood walls. I was heartened when I discovered the bunk beds. I had secretly feared we would sleep on the floor, subject to any sort of vermin seeking refuge from the harsh Russian winter. The door also had a lock, to keep out another sort of vermin. I resolved to keep my head in the midst of my new male friends. 
I shuffled down the aisle till I spotted an open bed. I exchanged pleasantries with a tall blonde nurse from Tula, named Olga, who occupied a lower bunk. I tossed my bag on the upper bunk, which gave a metallic squeak. The room housed ten sets of bunk beds, all squished together in the dingy room. Frost formed on the inside of the windows. For the first time, I felt thankful for my woolen pants, thick boots, and heavy coat, drab as they were.
“Do you think I could still get something to eat?” I asked. 
“Sure, wait and I’ll go with you. You can get food at almost any time since we run shifts all day and all night. I just need to change.”
“What time did you start?”
“Five. I’m exhausted.”
“Do you like vodka?”
“Sure, but where could we get that? Sometimes I have enough money to buy it, but I’m always too tired to socialize or do anything.” Olga buttoned up a clean, shit-colored shirt.
“You stay with me. I know a couple of medics who aren’t quite ready to let go of living, at least till tomorrow.”
“Fine. Just remember, five o’clock comes around pretty quick.”
An hour later, Olga, Surkov, Semarenko, and I met at the newly dubbed “Vodka Room,” an old storage room with an exterior entrance on the west wing. The back half of the room contained junked truck parts and a few broken crates. Seepage of water from the cracked cinder block walls in the rear corner gave the room a dankness which forced us to open the door periodically to let in fresh, frigid air. Though the conditions proved uncomfortable, I enjoyed the feeling of defiance as I drank vodka stolen from communist officers.
Forced to sit on the cold, concrete floor, we exchanged small talk. Surkov described how the building, once a textile factory, had closed once the Germans neared the area. The abandoned factory was converted into a hospital when the Russian front lines secured the area. Two exterior buildings underwent cursory renovations to become barracks for the medical staff and soldiers guarding the area. The upper floor of the hospital wasn’t used because most of the stairwells were in disrepair. Our weary group talked briefly regarding the tasks ahead. The men knew that in time they would experience the danger of medics on the front lines. Olga felt confident she would continue as a surgeon’s nurse, and I said I hoped to stay with the accustomed duties of an orderly. This ugly gray box was my new cage—though it was better than going to the front.
Even though Surkov and Olga were willing to talk of themselves, like Semarenko, I spoke little of myself, strangely pleased that no one knew anything about my seditious secrets. What would they think if they knew how much of my life had been spent fighting the relentless Soviet chokehold that gripped every one of their lives? Surkov would probably pour me a large portion and toast me, but what did I know about him? Or any of my new acquaintances? Any of them could be Party members sent to sniff out dissenters. I hadn’t stayed out of prison by being forthright. No, I would keep my silence and let them believe I was simply a misplaced professor in the bizarre clutch of war.
[Want more? Click below to read a longer excerpt.]

Praise for the Book
"A stirring historical novel that plumbs the depths of war for the possibilities of love ... Written in a wise, often poetical prose ... An epic portrayal of a romance born out of the rubble of World War II." ~ Kirkus Reviews
"Visually, Death Steppe would be a great film to watch. The historical setting is vibrantly described and Judy Bruce’s well-developed characters are the best I’ve read so far. They are well-fleshed out and their emotions vividly resonate from start to finish ... Bruce nailed the pace and plot of the story. The page-turning quality had me simply wanting to read on ... " ~ Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews
"Bruce beautifully captures the brutal landscape of war while weaving in the effects upon humanity and individuals. It was sometimes dark, sometimes beautiful, and at times incredibly suspenseful." ~ Caffeinated Book Reviewer
"I am happy to give Death Steppe: A World War II Novel 4 out of 4 stars. It deserves no less. It is a touching, raw story that will pull you in from the very start and keep you reading until the last page. Suspense, good writing and storytelling, unforgettable imagery, and rich, complex characters combine to make this one of the better books I’ve read in a long time. This multi-faceted story could be enjoyed by readers who like historical fiction, romance, and action stories. My congratulations to Judy Bruce for pouring her obvious talents and insights into this book and creating a stirring, poignant, thought-provoking story." ~ Online Book Club

My Review

By Lynda Dickson
Elena Nevskaya is a Muscovite, widow, literature professor, black marketeer, and secret Christian, who is "volunteered" as a medic by the Russian army in their battle against Nazi Germany in 1944. Elena is surrounded by death and, with all of her loved ones dying around her, she concludes that "love meant pain". She is forced to stare death in the face every day as she tends to wounded soldiers - first in the hospital and later on the front line. Later still, she is conscripted as a navigator with the female bomber pilots dubbed the "Night Witches", where she learns that now she must "kill - it is the only way to survive". When disaster strikes, Elena comes face-to-face with the enemy, in the form of Lieutenant Friedrich Halder, a Russian-speaking German officer who is battling demons of his own. Will they be able to put aside their differences in order to survive?
The story is told in the first person by Elena and in the third person by Halder. This technique allows their stories to intertwine more and more as time progresses, without losing track of who is narrating. The book is full of interesting characters, but too many are introduced by name, making it unclear which ones we need to remember for later. Although based on true events of World War II, I doubt one woman would have gone through everything that Elena experiences - but it sure does make for an interesting story. As Elena is exposed to the horrors of war, so too are we. The writing is as stark as the landscape, with brutal descriptions of the savagery of war, the atrocities of the death camps, the suffering endured by captured enemies, and the brutality of the soldiers. While the narrative recounts what people will do in the name of war and in the name of love, it is - thankfully - interwoven with a thread of faith and hope. The fitting and realistic ending will leave you with a lump in your throat.
Warnings: graphic violence, coarse language, mild sex scenes.

Guest Post by the Author (originally featured on the author's blog)
The Story Behind Death Steppe
No, steppe doesn’t refer to a Victorian-era horror story; it’s a World War II tale about war on the western Russia prairie, an area akin to the grasslands of the Great Plains in America and Canada, or the veldt in southern or eastern Africa.
Anyway, my World War II novel takes place in 1944, during Germany’s retreat from western Soviet Union. My story follows the lives of a Russian war widow, Elena, a dissident, Christian, and black marketeer, as she serves as a medic on the front lines, and a disillusioned German lieutenant, Halder, a former professor and concentration camp officer, as he fights in a losing effort. In time, Elena and others, are forced into service as temporary navigators in an all-female regiment to the Red Army air force. After Elena’s plane crashes, she finds the injured Halder from the squadron she helped bomb. As enemies, the injured Elena and Halder alternate between helping and nearly killing each other. Eventually, the desperate soldiers discover an unexpected bond. Together they embark on a turbulent journey as lovers and disheartened deserters.
I present an unusual perspective – the reluctant female soldier. She plays several roles as she saves, kills, loves, hates, and flees. I was fascinated by my research on the "Night Witches", Soviet women who flew canvas and plywood training planes (without parachutes) on night scouting and bombing missions. I take Halder through the moral torture of an officer-in-training at Dachau, before he fails as a Nazi and is sent to the horror of the front lines, presumably to die. Both struggle with the notion of a loving God in a time of monstrous cruelty and loss.
At its core, it’s a story about two people forced from their jobs and their families by governments they hate and fear into the sacrifices, the traumas, and the moral battles they face amid a war that kills 30 million people in western U.S.S.R. Within the war story is a tale of two unlikely lovers forced to create their own rules, their own solutions, their own versions of love, redemption, and escape.
Sounds like a real knee-slapper, doesn’t it? Well, I’ve never claimed to be a comedian, though my daughter and son think I’m goofy.
I liked the idea of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Though my two main characters are professors, brains won’t stop a bullet or a bomb. And it’s bravery more than any trait that helps them to survive.
An important theme in the story refers to the struggle with reconciling war with one’s religious beliefs. I found it natural for Elena and Halder to question, plead, and pray to God as they walked the tightrope between life and death. So often, any misstep meant falling in to the chasm of death. Although they came from different backgrounds - Elena from clandestine Christianity, Halder from established Protestantism, they faced the similar perils and moments of faith and doubt.
As they witnessed and fought through the horrors of war they asked: where is God? And they wondered how can you be a Christian in war? The old saying states there are no atheists in foxholes. I think my characters face the same questions that would torment people of any faith or moral code. Pacifism is a belief for people to ascribe to in the safety of their homes - it doesn’t apply to those forced to fend for their lives. This story boils down to the search for humanity in the midst of brutality.

About the Author
I am a resident of Omaha, Nebraska, where I live with my husband and two children. I have a law degree from Creighton University, and I’ve visited the area in which the story takes place. I’m the author of the Wind Series (Voices in the Wind, Alone in the Wind, and Cries in the Wind - coming soon) and Death Steppe.