Other Side of the River by Janice L. Dick

Other side of the river


About the Book

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
The Maker of heaven and earth.”

Psalm 121:1-2 NIV

Western Siberia, 1926.

Daniel Martens and Luise Letkemann, with their fellow Mennonites, struggle to maintain faith and biblical values within the tightening grip of the Stalinist regime.

Luise Letkemann has great hopes for her future—including marriage to Daniel Martens—but as the political situation in the Soviet Union deteriorates and the Mennonites become targets for persecution, she sees her dreams slipping away. In light of the changes happening around her, Luise is forced to re-evaluate her plans and make some life-altering decisions.


Book Excerpt

 Chapter One

Alexandrovka, Slavgorod Colony, Western Siberia — 1926

The schoolhouse door burst open, ushering in a cold March wind and two Soviet officials, their guns directed at the group of young adults gathered for a Sunday afternoon songfest.

Luise Letkemann’s fingers froze on the neck of her mother’s violin, and her bow skittered off the strings as she whirled to face the intruders. From the corner of her eye she saw Daniel move across the room to her side. A frown had replaced the look of love that had lit his eyes a moment ago.

Luise slipped her violin beneath a pile of coats. These men harbored no respect for person or property, and she would not let them take the only keepsake she had from her mother.

“What are you doing here?” The sternness of Commissar Victor Magadan’s voice sent a chill up Luise’s spine, but it was the limping step of the second official that set her to quaking. Senior-Major Leonid Dubrowsky of the GPU—the dreaded Soviet secret police—had that affect on people.

“We have gathered to sing,” said Daniel. “Would you care to join us?”

Luise heart skipped a beat at Daniel’s insolence.

“You know there is a law against the German. You are breaking that law.”

Daniel stepped forward to stand before Magadan, and Luise’s breath caught in her throat.

“It is our mother tongue, the language of our hearts.” He said this in fluent Russian. “When we sing, that is what comes out.”

Dubrowsky elbowed his junior officer aside, his lip curled like a snarling dog as he stared at Daniel. He lacked the stature of Magadan, but the coldness of his eyes beneath their bushy brows more than made up for it. Even so, Daniel did not back down. Luise willed herself to breathe.

“Do not speak so freely to GPU,” said Dubrowsky. “It is not healthy.”

He turned from Daniel and limped to the food table where he helped himself to zwieback, platz, and barley coffee while the young people stood wide-eyed and waiting. Then, with a grunt, he heaved the table onto its side, spilling food and drink across the plank floor.

Gasps and whimpers traveled around the room like a gust of wind, but terror stole Luise’s breath when she felt Dubrowsky’s arm reach around her waist. She stood motionless, watching Daniel’s face as he struggled to free himself from Magadan’s firm grip. The GPU could do whatever they wanted. They lived beyond laws of state or conscience. Dubrowsky was a senior plenipotentiary; he made his own decisions.

Magadan looked none too pleased with the situation. It was his job to keep order in the village of Alexandrovka, but he could not overrule a senior-major.

Dubrowsky leaned so close to Luise she could feel his breath on her neck. “Another time, my little Mennonite sparrow.” And then he was gone, the echo of his uneven steps matching Luise’s erratic heartbeat.

The biting cold pushed in through the open door, and wrapped itself around her soul.


Later, while she mixed the biscuits for supper, Luise relived the disastrous afternoon. Consumed by the memory of Dubrowsky’s arm around her, she did not hear the voices outside until the door burst open. The cup of flour she held flew from her hand to the floor.
Anna Letkemann entered the house, all flutter and fuss, shooing her children before her.

“Hans, take off your boots! Nela, you are shedding snow all over!”

Coughing, she slipped out of her coat and hung it on one of the pegs beside the door. “Luise! Wipe up the floor. It’s wet and there you’ve spilled flour all over when there’s none to waste. We can’t have your father coming home to a dirty floor.”

Luise swallowed the retort that formed on her lips, reminding herself of Tante Manya’s wise counsel not to allow the burrs of her stepmother’s meanness to fasten themselves to her soul.

“Supper will be ready soon, Mother, such as it is.”

Luise kissed Nela and helped her with her coat, then reached out to tousle Hans’ hair. In five-year old independence, he pretended not to like it, but Luise’s wink roused a grin. She reached onto a shelf for a rag and wiped up the floor.

“Did you have a nice visit with Tante Manya?” She did not mention the Soviet officials at the Sunday afternoon social. That would require endless explanation.

“Nice visit? How can one have a nice visit anymore? The Soviets have taken everything of worth and then they demand more yet.”

“They haven’t taken everything, Mother. We still have our family.”

Her stepmother’s sallow eyes burned into hers. “Do not contradict me, Luise. Just because your father allows you to speak so to him does not mean you may talk back to me. Someday, girl, you will realize that not every cloud has a silver lining.”

Luise turned away. Why did Mother insist on goading her? Of course there were hardships— hunger and fear and uncertainty—but as Papa said, every day on this side of the sod is a good one.

As if her thoughts invited him home, Papa entered the house and slapped snow from his pants before removing his boots. Luise detected heaviness in his step, but as usual, he masked it with good humor.

“Good evening everyone. Luise, I hear you survived an unannounced visit from the authorities this afternoon.” He smiled but his eyes conveyed concern.

Luise frowned at him. “All ended well, Papa.”

“What authorities?” Mother stood as if frozen, a plate held in mid-air above the table. “I didn’t hear about it. What happened?”

“Just a routine check, Mother.”

Papa bunched his lips together and Luise understood his silent apology. She steeled herself for her stepmother’s onslaught.

“No harm done, and we were spared again,” said Papa quickly as he crossed the room to wash his hands in the basin on the countertop. “Always something for which to be thankful.”

“You two and your false cheer. It’s enough to—” A deep, ragged cough cut off Mother’s retort and shook her slim form. She tried to finish her sentence but gave in to another fit of coughing. Luise read Papa’s concern and quickly brought the bean soup and biscuits to the table.

“Nela! Hans! Kommt essen.”

Her younger brother and sister could share her portion; she had eaten a zwieback at the schoolhouse before the officials arrived. Hans and Nela needed the food more than she did.


About the Author

Janice Dick

Janice Dick began writing intentionally in 1989. Her historical trilogy was released in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the first two books winning First Place in the Canadian Christian Writing Awards, and the third being shortlisted for the same. Besides writing historical fiction, she has also crafted devotionals, inspirational pieces and book reviews, and put in many hours of editing, mentoring, and speaking (workshops, presentations, readings). Her first contemporary fiction manuscript awaits either publication or extensive revision, and a new historical fiction series was just released (October 2013).

Janice was born and raised in southern Alberta, Canada into an ethnic Mennonite farm family. She was blessed with a loving and stable childhood, and lots of relatives who told stories of Russia, emigration and early life in Canada. After graduating from high school, Janice attended Bible College in Saskatchewan, where she met her future husband. They moved to a farm in central Saskatchewan after their marriage and raised three children there. They are now grandparents to ten amazing kids.


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