by Kristen Houghton, author of FOR I HAVE SINNED A Cate Harlow Private Investigation
Published in The Huffington Post, 1/13/15
There is something in the human heart that has an unconscious yearning to know about the past, most specifically our own family’s past. Who hasn’t looked at old, faded pictures of relatives long gone and wondered about their lives? Who were these people? What were their lives like? What were the joys and sorrows of those lives? The need to know is palpable.
It is also a matter of curiosity. It is part of our heritage, and part of who we are.
We have all heard childhood stories about our parents and grandparents. Greg Archer was a child of 5 when he first heard stories of how his mother, her sisters, and three of her brothers had endured some type of “adventure” when they were children. But the adventures of our parents and grandparents seem so distant; hearing about them is similar to hearing fairy tales that begin, “Long, long ago….”
Even when we become adults, the fairy-tale guise of what happened to the past generation keeps us safe from reality. Archer so perfectly captures this feeling: He says that when he received a floppy disc from his mother’s brother detailing an account of the “adventure,” “it smacked of an ethereal fairy-tale filled with a mythic villain in dark corners of the universe. It had been comfortably out of reach, a safe distance away from me.”
Still, impressive and exotic-sounding words like “Siberia,” “Uzbekistan,” and “Tanganyika” piqued his interest and settled in his subconscious. The subconscious has a way of remembering for us and retrieves what we once heard or saw at some future given time.
In Grace Revealed: A Memoir, Archer first takes us on his own prolific journey of self-discovery as a journalist, an adventure that all writers seem to take at one time or another. From his Polish-American roots in Chicago to California to Hawaii and back, he experiences an interesting, eclectic mix of life and people. It is perhaps this journey of self that eventually leads him to another journey, a very human one to discover the reality of his family’s strength and endurance under harsh and extreme circumstances.
Archer, author and award-winning journalist, has brought to bear all his remarkable journalistic skills to tell the story of the haunting and heart-wrenching journey he undertook to discover his Polish family’s past during the terror-filled time of Stalin and the Russian ruler’s ruthless actions across Eastern Europe. Stalin was a monster whose actions were soul-destroying and dignity-shredding. Those who survived were forever scarred, emotionally and physically.
Whatever journey we undertake usually begins with some small detail. The first step of Archer’s journey began with a broken picture frame that held pictures of his grandmother, his mother, and his aunts. Broken glass, possibly symbolic of freeing those held within the frame, the author muses. A spark has been lit, and the need to know more about these relatives and what they experienced grows. Is the broken frame a sign from the divine, gently pushing him to research his family? A sure sign from the universe? Possibly so. And so the story begins, and it is a memorable one.
Archer’s family in Poland lived through the horror of Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of nearly 2 million Polish citizens to the Siberian gulags, and from there to the Middle East and Eastern Africa. Stalin’s reign of terror is an incredibly under-reported atrocity of the 1940s, a time when most of the world was preoccupied with World War II. As Archer’s Uncle John often told him, “Most of the world knows what Hitler did to the Jews, but hardly anybody knows what Stalin did to our people.”
The author admirably bridges the present and the past as he undertakes an overseas trek to the ancestral country hoping that he himself can become a saving grace to the past generation and hoping that, by telling their story, he might bring them some type of peace.
Greg Archer does bring a healing to his family and others like them by writing the story, because, like all stories of life, no matter how cruel and heartbreaking the adventure may be, there are always some parts of it that hold hope and even laughter. The author asks only that we not forget the truth of the past. He says:
“I think in this current era in which we live, especially in America, we all seem to be so busy and so wrapped up in social media and technology. I think it’s vital we continue to share stories of historical significance and nuance that illuminate the power of the human spirit and what it is capable of, that pure radiance within us that can overcome and face anything, no matter what.”
Out of the ashes of despair and heartache, the author creates a must-read story of the indomitable spirit of humanity that he finds in abundance in his own family.
Copyright 2015 Kristen Houghton
Read Kristen’s award-winning new thriller For I Have Sinned (A Cate Harlow Private Investigation), available now.
Follow Kristen Houghton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kristenhoughton