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Three Women 

Midlothian writer explores her Ukrainian family roots in wonderful debut novel, “The Baba Yaga Mask.”

click to enlarge baba2.jpeg

In the mid 1990s, I was on my second tour as an American journalist in Moscow. This time I had two young daughters in tow. On snowy weekends when I wasn’t working, we’d all get bundled up in down quilts and watch cartoons, or I would read to them.

A common character that they still remember clearly is Baba Yaga, a kind of Slavic witch. She was ugly, scary and lived in a house that had chicken legs that could walk the domicile around. But she was not completely an evil, Cruella de Vil-type of Disney villain. She could be good or bad. If you did things her way, you’d benefit. If you did not, she would eat you.

This is the backdrop for Midlothian-based writer Kris Spisak’s wonderful first novel, “The Baba Yaga Mask.” She uses the grandmotherly witch as a touchstone to a story about her Ukrainian family spanning at least three generations.

The book came out by chance in April in the middle of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in thousands of deaths, the destruction of homes, hospitals and schools and the displacement of about two million people.

For anyone looking to get a sense of Ukraine, this book is a good place to start.

Spisak’s book centers on three strong women. One is Baba Vira, an energetic and unpredictable 90-something, and her two granddaughters – Larissa and Ira. They live in a closely-knit Ukrainian family in the West. Vira plans a trip to Poland to attend a Ukrainian folk dance festival and meet with old friends. Larissa and Ira grow wary when Vira flies off and somehow disappears.

Thus, the sisters set off on a quick search of Warsaw and several nearby countries in search of Vira who is described as “the liar, the sneak, the one not to be trusted, the one who prized bravery and following ones heart above all else and the one who would fight for her place in life harder than any man she had known.”

As the search continues, the author introduces another element. There are chapters of flashbacks to Vira’s years at the start of World War II in western Ukraine. Thanks to a pact between Stalin and Hitler, Soviet forces occupy the part of Ukraine where her family lived. Like others in the area, Vira’s people just wanted to be independent. Then Hitler attacked Russia and everything turned upside down. Jews are deported or end up hanged on street lamps.

Vira’s Polish holiday seems to be an excuse to retrace her war days as she goes from Poland to Slovakia and Hungary, where her family had fled. She seems to know her granddaughter’s bloodhounds are on her case since she leaves them hints of her presence that are easy to find.

A nice thing about Spisak’s writing is that her descriptions are poetic. The women enjoy braiding their hair in the Ukrainian way and love dressing up in smocks and blouses that have intricate embroidery of flowers and other symbols. Dancing and singing are common. Vira’s hands are stained from years of making borscht, the red beet coup.

Spisak describes a war scene from Vira’s past: “Gunfire murmured in the not-so-distant hills beyond the makeshift camps. The sound woke up Vira in the middle of the night. Next to her, she could feel Lesya stirring too. Her sister’s breath was quick, matching her own. Vira pulled the covers up higher. The war wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near them.”

The author is from Roanoke and her mother is Ukrainian. She grew up with family stories about the country and its culture. She also had a flair for writing that began as a hobby when she was young. She graduated from the College of William and Mary and has a master’s degree in writing from the University of Richmond.

She combined her writing training with mining her family for stories. The topic is the subject of one of three, how-to books on writing that she published before her novel.

“I love creative writing and imagination. I like grammar and how one word can change an entire sentence,” she says.

She’s been a writing instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond along with community colleges. She ended up in Richmond by happenstance. She “fell in love with” the city in graduate school and was surprised by the depth of the local culture and talent pool.

A big factor in her continued interest in writing was her membership in James River Writers where she has served on the board. “They are very supportive,” she says.

Oddly, Spisak has never been to Ukraine but has traveled extensively throughout Eastern Europe. A trip she had planned some years ago was canceled due to political unrest in Ukraine. It’s doubtful she’ll get there anytime soon.

Kris Spisak is hosting a humanitarian aid donation event for the people of Ukraine at Chop Suey Books the week of July 5th, closing the weeklong effort with a book signing 11 a.m. – 12 p.m. on Friday, July 8. For more information about donations, visit https://kris-spisak.com/humanitarian-aid-ukraine/

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