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Book Review

Miriam Talan is no cookie-cutter spunky heroine. Her story is one of struggle; her triumph is that she survives. More importantly, her granddaughter Sarah Byrne has her own story told. She isn't just the lens through which we learn about Miriam's story. She has her own life, which is appropriately shaken by the revelations she discovers. 

Though I give this book five stars, I also want to give it a warning. Dealing, as it does, with both Nazi and Soviet history, it is often painful to read. This is not a book to be read lightly.

KIRKUS: Starred Review

A gripping historical saga that skillfully addresses the trauma of the Holocaust.

A Jewish family torn apart by Nazi and Soviet persecution struggles to reconnect in this historical novel.

Sanders' tale braids together two different timelines. Once, set in the mid-1970's, follows Sarah Byrne, a 24-year-old market researcher in Chicago who wants to find out more information about her mother Ilana's mysterious past after her sudden death. To that end, Sarah approaches her maternal grandmother, Miriam--a prickly, suspicious elderly woman who initially refuses to talk to her, but grudgingly relents as Sarah plies her with some home-cooked meals. Intertwining chapters follow the ordeal of Miriam and her Jewish family--husband Max, a prosperous dentist; young Ilana; and toddler son, Monya--in the Latvian capital of Riga during World War II. When the Soviets invade Latvia in 1940, the family's house, money, and belongings are confiscated; things worsen a year later when the Germans conquer the country. After a horrific tragedy, Miriam makes the wrenching decision to give Ilana and Monya away to her Lutheran maid, Gutte, who will conceal their Jewish identities and raise them as gentiles. Miriam endures intense horrors during the Holocaust, surviving due to her own grit, luck, and the occasional kindness of strangers. In the '70's timeline, Sarah travels to the Soviet Republic of Latvia to try to track downs a family member; she has an unlikely romance but also experiences totalitarian terror herself when the KGB targets her. Sanders' novel vividly recreates the nerve-wracking fear and carnage of wartime Riga, as well as the city's feeling of grim paranoia during the late Soviet period. Her evocative prose reveals nuances of character in mundane domestic details ("Her grandmother dug through the meat loaf with her fork as if she were looking for buried treasure, or poison") and bears witness to atrocities in a manner that's all the more moving for its restraint and realism, as in a passage set just before a synagogue is burned: "The rabbi...began chanting the Shema in Hebrew, traditional last words for Jews, in a loud, unwavering voice. He walked into the synagogue. The doors clanged shut behind him." The result is a searching exploration o how much is lost during tragedies, even by those who live on.


Daughters of the Occupation is one of the most authentic and profound works of historical fiction I have ever read about World War II and the Holocaust.


It is inspired by true events that provide a powerful lesson and a compellingly uplifting story of a fictional family who managed to narrowly escape genocide in Latvia; trauma and collective survivors' guilt remained long after they established a new life in America. Two distinct voices--24-year-old Chicago-born, all-American and Christian-raised girl Sarah Byrne and her estranged Latvian Jewish grandmother, Miriam Talan--narrate alternating chapters. 

New York Journal of Books

"A highly emotional tale, charged with heartbreak and suffering, yet awash with perseverance, persistence, and a strong will to survive, this is a read that will stay in the minds of those who are lucky enough to read it."

Reviews: Rachel Trilogy


RACHEL's SECRET (Second Story Press, 2012) 256 pages


* (Starred review) BOOKLIST

When 14-year-old Rachel's father prods her about her withdrawn behavior, she implores him, "If you had a secret but knew it could cause trouble if you told, what would you do?" Living under Russian rule in Kishinev in 1903, Rachel was one of the last people to see her Christian friend Mikhail alive when she witnessed his murder at the hands of disgruntled relatives who stood to lose out on an inheritance. His death is blamed on Jews, however, and a vicious pogrom is unleashed on the city. Rachel's anguish about knowing what happened stems from a justified fear of not being believed if she comes forward, thus evoking more turmoil. She also harbors guilt that her somewhat risky friendship with a non-Jewish boy somehow triggered the calamity. Basing the story on historical record, Sanders weaves a tale of catastrophe stemming from unbridled hatred, spreading of untruths, and lack of commitment to public safety on the part of officials. And while Rachel does act courageously and courtroom justice is meted out, virulent anti-Semitism still rules the day. In an artful way throughout this absorbing, chilling tale, characters wonder what can stop the tragedy of hatred from overcoming community, a question that will prompt readers to wonder the same.

--Anne O'Malley


Kirkus Reviews

"Critical for its underexplored subject."





Congratulates Shelly Sanders

on being awarded

Honorable Mention

in the Inspirational/Spiritual



The Immortal Samovar


Amy Jones


AWARDS: Rachel Trilogy

Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Book Award, 2013--Commended (Rachel's Secret)

Canadian Children's Book Centre Our Choice Book, 2012--Commended (Rachel's Secret)

TD Canadian Book Week Author May 2-9, 2015

Word on the Street: Toronto Book & Magazine Festival 2013--Panel Member: This is not the Shakespeare Stage

Topic for discussion: We found love in a hopeless place

Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Book Award, 2015 (Rachel's Hope)

Vine Awards for Jewish Literature: Shortlisted for Rachel's Hope, 2016


iTunes Book of the Week (May 10, 2012)

In 1903 Russia, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl dreams of becoming more than the mother and homemaker that tradition dictates--she wants to be a writer. But when a Christian man is killed and she must keep the murderer's identity a secret, events spiral out of control. As violence against Jews break out in what would become known as the Kishinev pogrom, she faces devastation and eventually finds love in a story that's ultimately both moving and provocative. Rachel's Secret effectively uses the historical record to create a compelling image of this troubled period, making meaningful points about the role of hatred and hope in society--how young people can break free from the shackles of tradition.

RACHEL's PROMISE (Second Story Press, 2013) 250 pages



Starred Review, CM Magazine December 20, 2013

...Like the first book of the trilogy, Rachel's Promise has been meticulously researched. All the grim details of the gruelling three thousand mile, three week train journey that Rachel's famiky endures have been captured here, as is the harrowing atmosphere of the five day sea voyage to Shanghai...While Sergei questions his course of action in his dark and desperate circumstances, Rachel questions the place of religion in the wake of her father's murder. She tells her sister, "We have to make choices to do things that will improve our lives, instead of hoping for divine help that will never come." 

While their struggles may sound bleak and depressing, Sanders' characters are anything but....Both Rachel and Sergei's lives are filled with a wide variety of characters that complete the picture of the world Sanders has recreated.

--Charlotte Duggan

Association of Jewish Libraries

Sanders vividly describes the conditions of the factory workers while contrasting their lives with the extravagance of the czar's castle and those of diplomats in St. Petersburg. In addition, she conveys information about the Jewish immigrant community in Shanghai during the early twentieth century. Recommended for all libraries.

Historical Novel Society, February 2014

This is a wrenching story of a Russian-Jewish family fleeing the pogroms of the early 20th century, the second novel in a planned trilogy. Rachel's father has been killed, and in this novel she and her mother and sister travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and on to Shanghai. Rachel leaves behind a young friend, Sergei, who despite being Christian seems sympathetic to Rachel and her people. Sergei runs away from home, away from his father, a policeman, who takes part in the pogroms. This novel follows both young people in alternating chapters, fostering the impression that these two will somehow meet in the third novel...Sanders combines her own family history with larger known historical events--the Russo-Japanese War, the organized strikes of pre-revolutionary Russia and the Jewish community that settled in Shanghai. 

--Jeanne Mackin

RACHEL's HOPE (Second Story Press, 2014) 288 pages


Starred Review, CM Magazine

...Shelly Sanders delivers and exciting plot, an ambitious historical context, and engaging, complex characters.

Sanders has her finger on the zeitgeist of this era. She puts readers inside the head of a young and scared Russian revolutionary who starves for both bread and freedom. Through dialogue and character exposition, readers understand the complexities of the women's suffrage movement. Her characters discuss and explore issues fundamental to all immigrants, but with a focus on the Jewish experience--are we safe? whom do we trust? can I be a Jew and an American?

--Charlotte Duggan

Booklist, October 30, 2014

...a good job of illustrating many facets and challenges of immigrant life, including assimilation, work, self-fulfillment, and sense of home. The series finale will resonate most with those familiar with the previous titles.

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