Happy Book Birthday to Torch and Lyn Miller-Lachmann! Torch has already garnered two starred reviews, and I’m sure more are to come! It is a powerful, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, turn-the-pages-as-fast-as-you-can historical novel.
Set in 1969, the year after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, Torch follows three main characters, Štěpán, Tomáš, and Lída. Each has drawn the attention of the brutal state system because of their friendship with Pavol, who protested the state’s repression by setting himself on fire. He is the torch that is referred to in the title, and his death ignites a flame that throws a spotlight on his friends.
What spurs readers forward is the revelation that each of the protagonists has a trait that will unleash the state’s cruelty. Štěpán is gay, Tomáš is autistic, and Lída is pregnant with the revolutionary Pavol’s son. As the net closes tighter and tighter around them, the question is whether each will be destroyed or whether each has the courage to attempt the impossible—cross the impenetrable border to Austria.
I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil Torch for you. But I will say, go find this book and read it! Yes, it is a deeply researched historical novel. But it is also a story about humanity, about who has heart and strength enough to take on the impossible.
Three teens struggle to carve out futures for themselves under a totalitarian regime.
Seventeen-year-old Pavol has watched his country’s freedoms disappear in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion. He’s seen his own dreams disappear too. In a desperate, fatal act of protest against the oppressive new government, he sets himself on fire in public, hoping to motivate others to fight for change.
Instead, Pavol’s death launches a government investigation into three of his closest friends. Štěpán finds his Olympic hockey ambitions jeopardized and must conceal his sexual orientation from authorities who could use it against him. Tomáš has already been accused of “antisocial” behavior because he struggles to follow the unwritten rules of everyday interactions, and now he must work even harder to meet the expectations of his father, the regional leader of the communist party. And aspiring film director Lída, Pavol’s girlfriend, is pregnant with his child, which brands her a traitor by association and upends all her plans.
With their futures hanging in the balance, all three must decide whether to keep struggling to survive in the country Pavol died hoping to save . . . or risk a perilous escape to the other side.
Lyn speaks multiple languages and has travelled around the world, including to the Czech Republic. She has always wondered what it would be like to live in another place and time. This is one of the reasons she writes historical fiction. Torch is Lyn’s fourth historical novel, following on the heels of her middle-grad novel Moonwalking, which is set in 1980s Brooklyn and came out earlier this year.
Both of Lyn’s other historical novels, Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago, have backstories relating to Chile’s brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. One of the things I’ve always wondered about Lyn is how she stays optimistic as she researches such oppressive political systems. I know she gets joy from ice cream, Lego, the perfect cup of coffee, her twin grandsons, and a great playlist. But what is the real key to her optimism?
So, let me turn things over to Lyn. She is joining us from New York City and is here to tell us What Was on her…
TV screen when she first thought up Torch: I first visited Prague in 2011 and have been back since, as well as to Bratislava, now the capital and largest city in Slovakia. (What was then Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, a little over three years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ushered in democratic rule.) I’d known about Jan Palach’s self-immolation in January 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion and his country’s passivity in the face of it. But I didn’t get the idea to write this book until I saw the HBO Europe miniseries “Burning Bush” in 2017. The miniseries highlights the Palach family’s efforts to clear his name and the courageous lawyer who takes the case, but I really wanted to know what motivated this young student and what happened to his friends, who were targeted by the police after his death. Even the act of mourning him and the other martyrs to democracy was prohibited.
Research stack: In addition to novels like Milan Kundera’s classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Viliam Klimáček’s The Hot Summer of 1968, I read historical analyses of the period and oral history interviews in the archives of Radio Prague and Radio Free Europe, among other sources. I also watched films from that era and listened to music to get a sense of the sights, sounds, and flavor of everyday life.
List of tricks for staying optimistic as she researches: One of the advantages of historical fiction is the distance one has from that reality. Hindsight is 20-20, and we know that ultimately this story ended in 1989 with the peaceful Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule and restored democracy to the people of Czechoslovakia. I think of the heroes of the time, the ordinary people and the leaders who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom and human rights. One of my heroes is Václav Havel, a playwright who helped initiate the Charter 77 movement that culminated in the 1989 revolution. He became the country’s first democratically-elected president. The courageous lawyer featured in “Burning Bush,” Dagmar Burešová, became the first Minister of Justice, where she implemented judicial reform and several years later the peaceful separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These heroes, and the others I meet in my research, inspire me.
Most recent playlist: You bet I had a playlist for Torch! Most of it consisted of the 60s rock and pop that the kids listened to before the hardline regime started banning Western music. The first scene of the novel takes place with The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” playing in the background (but on low volume and with windows shut tight lest a neighbor hear and notify the police). The Beatles have several songs mentioned in the course of the story. But The Doors, particularly the sprawling, stream-of-consciousness song “The End,” plays the biggest role. It’s both Pavol’s and Tomáš’s favorite song, but Štěpán is less impressed, calling it “morose and creepy and a laughably oversimplified rendering of Oedipus Rex.” My list also includes classical music, because that’s what Tomáš’s father played in their house and he grew up with. Classical music is central to Czech culture and so many great composers came from that area.
Travel Agenda: I haven’t traveled anywhere since June 2019, the last time my husband and I were in Portugal. First came the pandemic, and then my husband died suddenly of a heart attack a year ago. My first post-pandemic trip is this month, however. I’m speaking with my Moonwalking co-author, Zetta Elliott at the conference of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Anaheim, CA. Our panel is titled “Tough Topics for Middle School” (and I also have an essay for TeachingBooks.net on “Tough Topics for Teens” featuring Torch), and I guess I’m the ”tough topics” expert these days. While I’m there, I’ll visit with my daughter, who moved to Los Angeles in August and now teaches fifth grade. I do hope to return to Portugal in the spring. I still have friends there, including my writing partner Diana Pinguicha, author of the YA historical fantasy A Curse of Roses, and I’m finishing up a YA verse novel set in Portugal that I’ve been working on since 2018 but put aside to write Moonwalking.
Ice cream cone: Chocolate mint chip.
Mind: The rise of authoritarianism around the world is the story of the last 5-10 years. Everywhere, people are losing their freedom, much like the kids in Torch, whether due to yet another Bad Bear invasion, elected officials who refuse to accept the possibility of losing, or widespread apathy and complacency. Once freedom is lost, it’s very hard to get back. And life in an unfree place is hard and dangerous. If you don’t like a policy, or prices are too high, or someone with more power is trying to take your stuff, there’s really nothing you can do about it if you can’t vote them out in a free and fair election. We need to be proactive, to make sure authoritarians don’t get voted into power in the first place, and to help those standing up for their freedom like the brave people of Ukraine.
I agree with you about being proactive. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and be uncertain about what we can do. But as Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Thanks to you too, Lyn, for reminding me of this.
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If you would like to learn more about me, take a look at my website at sandranickel.com.