I can count on one hand the teachers who impacted me the most growing up. It started in 11th grade with my history teacher. On the first day of school, he came to class dressed as Captain Meriwether Lewis, and launched into a ten-minute monologue on the adventures of Lewis and Clark.
I was hooked.
Up until that time, history had been nothing but boring stories and pictures in books to me. But he brought it to life. He made me see that history was living and breathing, and that all of us are a part of it, whether we realize it or not.
Later that year, I went on a mission trip to Kiev, Ukraine, where I met a woman named Maria Ivanovna. It was there that history exploded before my eyes.
Maria was fourteen years old when the Nazi army invaded her country. Not long after the start of the war, she and her sister were snatched from the streets of Kiev and sent to Germany. Her sister Anna was sent to work as a maid in a German officer’s home.
Maria was sent to a slave labor camp.
I sat listening to Maria tell her story, and I was riveted. How could this gentle woman with the shock of silver hair speak so calmly of her two years in a prison camp? She was starved, worked to the bone, and beaten severely on one occasion when she dared stand up to the officers for their treatment of the prisoners.
Her history, juxtaposed against her gentle nature and witty charm baffled me. I wanted to know more. So I set out on a quest to gather as many stories as I could.
I wanted the world to see that this history, the holocaust, the war, the heartaches of those dark years, was real. It was cased in flesh, endured the horrors, and then lived on.
For those of us born after World War II, those years are just stories. They’re photographs and lists of names of those who perished. They’re major motion pictures, and tall memorials, and crosses in the ground.
But I touched history. I sat next to Maria and held her hand as she spoke. She grabbed me by the face and told me she loved me.
History is real people. It’s more than a simple story, though sometimes story is all we have. But if we can step beyond the story and dive into the imagining of it all, we will see that history was living and breathing.
From Adam and Eve, to you and I, history is alive. And with all the nuances that this world has to offer, we can tap into the beauty and grace of a living God if we’re willing to see the past for what it was – what it is.
I knew, after talking with Maria, that I had to tell her story. I spent years interviewing men and women just like her – people who lived through the worst that humanity had to offer, and came out with stories.
I wanted to tell their stories so that everyone could feel them. It is a grand privilege to be a storyteller, and it’s something I don’t take lightly, particularly when writing historical fiction because I believe that the power of story mixed with the beauty of the past can change lives.
So the next time you pull out a history book, or dig into your homeschool lesson, allow the stories to take you to a time and place that may be unfamiliar. Give yourself the freedom to believe the story, not just learn about it.
Because history is real people. It’s alive.
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Kelli Stuart is a storyteller at heart with an affinity for languages, travel, and history. She is fluent in the Russian language, and has spent the last twenty years researching the effects of World War II on the former Soviet Union. Kelli’s first novel, Like a River From Its Course, is an epic story of war, love, grief, and redemption set in World War II Soviet Ukraine. It releases in June, 2016. Kelli is a homeschooling mom and lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband and four children.
Learn more at kellistuart.com.
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