Sunday 6 March 2016

Book Spotlight: Steppe by Judy Bruce

Death Steppe
by Judy Bruce
Historical Fiction
Miriam Press
Amazon | Amazon UK | BN


My World War II story, set in western Soviet Union during Germany’s retreat, follows the lives of a Russian war widow, a dissident, Christian, and black marketeer, as she serves as a medic on the front lines, and a disillusioned German lieutenant, a former professor and concentration camp officer, as he fights in a losing effort. After our heroine is forced into service as a navigator in a women’s air force regiment, flying plywood and canvas biplanes on harrowing night missions, she encounters the injured yet violent German when her plane crashes. Together they embark on a turbulent journey, first as enemies, later as lovers and disheartened deserters.



Copyright Judy Bruce 2015. All rights reserved.

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 box-car, 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, churning my insides at every jolt.

What the hell was I doing here? Yes, I believed in hell be-cause I believed in God, which a good communist wasn’t sup-posed to do, and I did my best to be a bad one. Living in the U.S.S.R. was excruciating, as if Soviet Socialism was a dull knife stabbed into my guts since childhood, always twisting and dig-ging deeper. 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 my-self 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 tighter, 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 pour-ing 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 longed 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 laugh-ing with my mama. But those people and that possibility became more remote with each frigid, snow-covered verst. 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 wore 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 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 quick-ly 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 dis-tance. Wondering what his name was, I felt sad that I only knew him as “19,” his black market code number. 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 arrived at the supposedly secret meeting with a box full of Bibles. The sum of four of the purchases became my commission. Although 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 fami-ly honored the Shabbat, lit the menorah, and had 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!”


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