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For Erin Litteken, Ukrainian history is family lore — and fodder for fiction

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Susan Bennet
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Erin Litteken grew up in Momence, Illinois, and now lives in Troy, which is just outside St. Louis.

Erin Litteken didn’t set out to capitalize on newfound interest in Ukraine. The Troy, Illinois, resident worked for a full decade on her debut novel, “The Memory Keeper of Kyiv.” That it’s being released at a time of unprecedented interest in Ukraine’s fate is pure coincidence.

That it depicts the nation’s suffering as a result of Russian meddling is less coincidence than, well, history. The granddaughter of a Ukrainian refugee, Litteken grew up hearing about the difficulties of life in Eastern Europe during, and after, World War II. That led her to the Holodomor, a time when Stalin’s heavy-handed attempts to force Ukraine to collectivize left an estimated 13% of the nation dead.

“There was no bug infestation,” Litteken said of the terrible famine that killed 3.9 million Ukrainians. “There was no bad weather. It was manmade; it was intentional. And that was what was so shocking, the more I researched: the depths of what they went through to make this happen.”

Scenes of pro-Russian activists looting local cottages and brutally suppressing dissent are front and center in Litteken’s novel, but it isn’t all suffering and death. Litteken cuts back and forth between a young widow in 2004 Illinois and her grandmother’s life in 1930, expertly weaving in recent hope along with stories of long-ago horror.

Listen to Erin Litteken on St. Louis on the Air

Both parts of the story draw on her heritage. When Litteken was growing up in rural Illinois, her Ukrainian grandmother lived with the family. Her memories of those years helped shape the scenes in the novel in which the Ukrainian grandmother interacts with her young granddaughter, Birdie. Litteken even gives the character the nickname she had for her grandma: Bobby.

“I spent a ton of time with her,” she said. “And it was so cathartic to write those memories and those stories and put them out there for her.”

Litteken also drew on conversations with a great-uncle, who lives in Croatia. “He's 87 years old, but we FaceTime a couple times a month to chat, and he's wonderful,” she said. “He fills in so many holes in our family history and Ukrainian culture — and just everything. He's been fantastic.”

Litteken said a copy of “The Memory Keeper of Kyiv” is headed his way — and not just his way. The book has earned glowing blurbs from bestselling authors Kate Quinn and Christy Lefteri (“The Beekeeper of Aleppo”) and is already set to be translated and republished in a dozen different languages.

It’s a heady finale for an author who spent 10 years chipping away at her idea for a novel, squeezing in writing sessions between her part-time job and raising two kids, now teenagers.

“Several times over, I would put it away and say, ‘This is never happening, I am done,’” she admitted. “But then I would always come back to it. Because it was such an important story to me, it felt so personal that I had to come back to it. I never gave up on it.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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