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Odrach's delightfully sardonic novel about the Stalinist occupation of Belarus that began in 1939 is rich with history, horror and comedy. The story unfolds in Pinsk and the villages of the Pinsk Marshes, where peasants who endured czars and Polish conquerors squirm helplessly under the boot of a regime more authoritarian than any they've known. Families are sent to labor camps on trumped-up charges; hapless innocents are tortured and executed without explanation. Ivan Kulik, the headmaster of an elementary school in the Ukrainian-speaking village of Hlaby, is frustrated with farcical Soviet demands, especially that classes be taught in Belorussian (none of the students or teachers speak the language). University-educated Ivan is fluent in Russian but prefers his native tongue, which doesn't help when he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Marusia Bohdanovich, who incompetently affects Russian airs. Potentially deadly trouble looms for Ivan and Marusia after she catches the eye of a sociopathic secret police lieutenant named Sobakin. There's a surplus of tragedy, but Odrach finds amid the havoc an affecting thread of humanity. The novel has been skillfully translated into English by Odrach's daughter. (Jan.)
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