There is a line in Barbra Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible that ran circles between my ears with every page turn while I read Diana Stevan’s Sunflowers Under Fire. The line goes:
“I knew Rome was burning, but I had just enough water to scrub the floor, so I did what I could.” (Kingsolver, 383).
It’s a commentary on the way women, mothers, carry on as countries crumble, revolutions flare and fade, as terrible things both great and small happen around and to them— women carry on because there are children who need feeding and fields that need plowing and traditions that must be observed because to be without tradition is to live without history, and that seems to be the message of Stevan’s stunning novel.
Sunflowers Under Fire opens on a birth scene in the summer of 1915, a woman alone on the floor of her family home gasping against the rag she has gagged herself with as she pushes her daughter, the last of many children, out of her body and into the world. Still alone this woman, Lukia Mazurets of Kivertsi, Ukraine, cuts the umbilical cord, cleans her child and herself, and goes back to the kitchen to make dinner.
This one scene sets the tone for the entire novel.
In the next pages, Lukia will learn that her husband has enlisted in the Tsar’s army to fight what we now call WWI, a few pages after that she and her five living children, including the days-old baby girl, will be herded onto a train and taken to a refugee camp in the Caucasus mountains. After the war, they return home to their farm where nothing remains but the dirt and the clay oven, which couldn’t burn when the farmhouse was torched. Even their well has been poisoned, and still Lukia carries on.
Across tragedy and hardship, and great joys also, Lukia maintains her faith and her traditions and her love for her home and always carries on. As Ukraine burns around her, metaphorically and literally, she scrubs the floors and bakes the bread and clothes her children because that is what a mother does. When she cannot fight the whole world, she fights for her corner of it instead.
It is a testament to Lukia’s resolve, and the love that went into chronicling her life. If you read the author’s afterword, you find that Lukia was Diana Stevan’s grandmother, and Stevan’s mother was the baby girl, Eudokia, born on the floor in the first pages. Lukia was a real person, not a character invented for our entertainment, and with every sentence she feels as warm and as nourishing as bread she bakes constantly across the course of Sunflowers.
Beautiful and harrowing, Sunflowers Under Fire is a novel about loss, love, and a mother’s resolve to carry on in the face of unimaginable odds. It is stunning work from a master storyteller, and a novel I look forward to returning to again and again.