Guest Post by Terry Farish
“Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you.”a quote from Václav Havel
Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s YA novel Torch brings 1969 Czechoslovakia to life, a time when the country is living under Soviet tyranny. The novel has won major book awards, most recently, Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. During occupation, neighbors, teachers, and students live in fear of each other, as the state rewards people who report others for disloyalty to the regime. I was astounded by the power of Miller-Lachmann’s storytelling as she follows the lives of three young protagonists who are fighting for their country’s freedom.
Torch was published 2022 and becomes more relevant each day. The events in Czechoslovakia hit me hard with parallels to the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. Novels haven’t been written yet about the people of Ukraine or the families of Russian soldiers forced into combat. But Torch shows the lives of young Czechoslovakian people after the invasion and later occupation, living under authoritarian rule.
In the first chapter, Pavol Bartos, near his 18th birthday, torches himself – self-immolation – in an act of despair and protest against the regime when he sees no future for his life. Pavol’s protest is modeled after an historical fact – young Jan Palach martyred himself as a “human torch” in 1969. The title Torch comes from Pavol’s resistance, which drives the novel forward.
Before Pavol’s suicide, two friends, Tomáš and Štepán, conspired with Pavol to commit an act of resistance. After his suicide, they and Pavol’s lover, Lída, who is pregnant with his child, are then under suspicion by the authorities. The novel draws Tomáš, Štepán, and Lída tighter and tighter into the deathly consequences of resistance. Torch works because in addition to portraying the violence and fear of the occupation, Miller-Lachmann tells a story of deep tenderness. The characters struggle not only with repression but with inner battles due to the consequences of their actions for each other.
Tomáš is an outsider whose father, a Soviet district director, calls him anti-social. In truth, he would be diagnosed today as on the autism spectrum. He has been bullied all his life, but never by Pavol, who was his friend. Because of that friendship and being identified as anti-social, Tomáš is under suspicion by the state.
“[Tomáš] learned that whole countries can bully as easily as schoolmates and fathers. They saw kindness as weakness to be crushed like a beautiful snow sculpture under a giant boot.”Torch, page 194
Soviet officers arrest the second boy, Štepán. His friendship with Pavol is enough evidence of his guilt. Štepán is offered up to them by the director of his school, fearful himself of being arrested. Chained in a truck, Štepán wonders how he will withstand torture and he hears Pavol’s voice in his head, “Whatever you do, don’t rat out Tomáš.” He, himself, is extremely vulnerable because he is gay, a fact he has hidden. His gender identity would end his dreams to become a star hockey player and put him in peril with the government.
When Lída is first questioned about Pavol, she remembers her father’s words:
“This is how you survive with your soul intact. Never name anyone. You saw nothing. You heard nothing. You have nothing to say.”Torch, page 64
The story builds on a break in loyalty, and with the consequences when a character must weigh one loyalty against another. Lída says – and this becomes a thread through the novel –
“None of us is ever as good a friend as we want to be. This country makes us that way.”Torch, page ?
I never imagined a resolution as dramatic and achievable as the one that becomes the goal of Lída, Tomáš, and Štepán. The book culminates in a story that has parallels to the stories of many young people when they and their families can no longer bear to live in tyranny. They risk all that is dear to escape.
Miller-Lachmann has written historical YA fiction about Chili in Gringolandia (Curbstone Books); she also translates children’s book from Portuguese to English including Three Balls of Wool (Enchanted Lion Books). Why did she decide to write about Czechoslovakia?
I talked with Lyn Miller-Lachmann to understand how she came to know this time in history so deeply.
Lyn: My translation work in Portuguese led me to Czechoslovakia. The picture book I translated, Three Balls of Wool, written by Henriqueta Cristine and illustrated by Yara Kono, is about a family living in Portugal under a fascist government who fled to communist Czechoslovakia. The research for one book led to my research for Torch. I really like telling the stories of young people who are idealists and experiencing things for the first time.
Terry: What parallels do you see between the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Lyn: The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was an effort to keep a country from spinning out of their empire. Putin is not going to stop with Ukraine and he has said that, and there is no reason why we should not believe him.
I’ve always been interested in human rights and love the work of Václav Havel.
Terry: I share your love of Václav Havel’s writing. For those who might not know, he was the last president of Czechoslovakia, and later, the president of the Czech Republic. He inspired many young people with his essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, which ends with these lines:
“For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?”from Václav Havel’s essay, The Power of the Powerless
Terry: Those could be words of fire for young people today with a hunger to fight for justice. In writing Torch, Lyn Miller-Lachmann gives young adults a novel of students’ resistance to tyranny, of hope, and of abiding friendship.
I am a writer of books for young adults and a former reviewer for “The Pirate Tree, Social Justice and Children’s Literature.” Writers’ Rumpus, thank you for inviting me to write this guest post.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of many books including Gringolandia and most recently, the translator of Paralita, by Joana Estrela. Miller-Lachmann was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult and features characters on the autism spectrum in her work, including in Rogue and Torch. She is a member of the We Are Kid Lit Collective, reviewers and bloggers who create reading lists for educators with books by Black, Indigenous, people of color, and neurodiverse BIPOC book creators.
She also built a LEGO town, Little Brick Township, and creates stories with the Lego figures. You can see the stories of Little Brick Township, and more about Lyn and her books at https://www.instagram.com/lynmillerlachmann/ and on her website: lynmillerlachmann.com.
Fascinating. The self-immolation had me nervous at first but I’m looking forward to reading this.
Thank you for writing such difficult history.
Such an important book — and a timely cautionary tale. Thank you Lyn for all your excellent work.
Thank you, Sally! By the way, I’m reading your new book right now and can’t wait to see it out in the world!
I LOVE this book so much! It’s powerful and moving, and a harbinger of the future—if we allow it to happen again. It is no wonder that the people of Ukraine truly know what is at stake (and are willing to die for it), as the rest of the world vacillates in their support of Ukraine or supports tyranny. Thank you, Lyn, for writing this novel!
Thank you, Julianne! Yes, the people of Ukraine have suffered over and over at the hands of Russia’s tyranny. I’m horrified by the number of people who, despite knowing what Russia is doing, continue to support such monstrous brutality. Rather than making their own lives better, they rejoice in harming others, both over there and at home.
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Wonderful post, thank you both! I really love historical fiction and this one sounds so powerful.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Hilary!
Wow! Torch sounds very powerful. Thank you for letting us know about it.
Thank you for reading the review! I hope you find the book a valuable read as well!