One of our recommended books is Daughters of the Occupation by Shelly Sanders


A Novel of WWII

Inspired by true events in World War II Latvia, an emotionally charged novel of sacrifice, trauma, resilience, and survival, as witnessed by three generations of women.

On one extraordinary day in 1940, Miriam Talan’s comfortable life is shattered. While she gives birth to her second child, a son she and her husband, Max, name Monya, the Soviets invade the Baltic state of Latvia and occupy the capital city of Riga, her home. Because the Talans are Jewish, the Soviets confiscate Max’s business and the family’s house and bank accounts, leaving them with nothing.

Then, the Nazis arrive.

more …

Inspired by true events in World War II Latvia, an emotionally charged novel of sacrifice, trauma, resilience, and survival, as witnessed by three generations of women.

On one extraordinary day in 1940, Miriam Talan’s comfortable life is shattered. While she gives birth to her second child, a son she and her husband, Max, name Monya, the Soviets invade the Baltic state of Latvia and occupy the capital city of Riga, her home. Because the Talans are Jewish, the Soviets confiscate Max’s business and the family’s house and bank accounts, leaving them with nothing.

Then, the Nazis arrive. They kill Max and begin to round up Jews. Fearing for her newborn son and her young daughter, Ilana, Miriam asks her loyal housekeeper to hide them and conceal their Jewish roots to keep them safe until the savagery ends.

Three decades later, in Chicago, 24-year-old Sarah Byrne is mourning the untimely death of her mother, Ilana. Sarah’s estranged grandmother, Miriam, attends the funeral, opening the door to shocking family secrets. Sarah probes Miriam for information about the past, but it is only when Miriam is in the hospital, delirious with fever, that she begs Sarah to find the son she left behind in Latvia.

Traveling to the Soviet satellite state, Sarah begins her search with the help of Roger, a charismatic Russian-speaking professor. But as they come closer to the truth, she realizes her quest may have disastrous consequences.

A magnificent, emotionally powerful story of family and the lingering devastation of war, the Daughters of the Occupation explores how trauma is passed down in families and illuminates the strength and grace that can be shared by generations.

less …
  • Harper Paperbacks
  • Paperback
  • May 2022
  • 400 Pages
  • 9780063226661

Buy the Book

$17.99 indies Bookstore

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly Sanders is the author of Daughters of the OccupationSHELLY SANDERS is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in the Toronto StarMaclean’s, the National Post and Canadian Living. She is the author of three well-lauded historical novels for young adults. The recipient of the Sydney Taylor Book Award, she was shortlisted for the Vine Award, among others, and has had starred reviews in Booklist. Shelly Sanders lives in Oakville, Ontario.


Daughters of the Occupation is a neatly crafted saga of personal and national trauma, a story of tentative hope in a world of menace, as three generations of women strive to understand who they are, where they came from, and how they can feel free.”Lucy Adlington, author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Dressmakers of Auschwitz

“A riveting story that will keep you turning the pages way into the night.”Joy Fielding, author of All the Wrong Places

Discussion Questions

1. After reading the Author’s Note, and finding that this novel is inspired by the author’s ancestors, how did your views of the characters and events change? Does the author effectively weave fact and fiction within the narrative? What are some examples that resonated with you?

2. Motherhood is a dominant theme in this novel. Miriam and her mother have a strained relationship, as do Miriam and Ilana, and Ilana and Sarah. How are these tense relations worsened by current events within the different generations? How are they affected by secrets?

3. After Sarah researches Latvian Jewish history at the Blackstone Library, and connects these events with her mother and grandmother, she concludes, ‘I am who I am because they were who they were’. Within your own family, who has shaped the person you have become?

4. Although you only see Ilana as an adult through Sarah’s eyes, you do get a sense of who she is as a mother and as a wife. What do you think she would say about Sarah diving into her past and traveling to Riga?

5. Throughout the novel, Sarah cannot stop thinking about her last conversation with her mother, when they disagree about marriage. Why do you think her mother is so concerned about Sarah settling down with a husband? Do you think Sarah gains a modicum of peace after her trip to Riga?

6. To pursue the career she desires, within a male-dominated industry in the 1970’s, Sarah puts her job ahead of her friends and Henry. She must also tolerate a misogynous boss. How have things improved since then, for women in the workforce? How have things stagnated?

7. Sarah’s mother is determined to keep her Jewish heritage, as well as her struggle to survive the Latvian Holocaust, from Sarah. To ensure Sarah is shielded from the past, she insists Miriam and Sarah’s father, say nothing. Was this the right thing to do? How did this decision affect Sarah? How would you feel if a secret about your identity was kept from you?

8. What do you think Roger’s motives are for helping Sarah? How did you feel about him when you discovered he is a KGB agent? What are some examples about living behind the Iron Curtain that surprised you?

9. Freedom is a recurring motif within this narrative, in both 1940’s and 1970’s Riga. In fact, Latvia didn’t regain its independence until 1991 and, since then, people have struggled to adapt to democracy and capitalism. Having read about the lives of some of these citizens, within this narrative, what are possible reasons people are finding it so hard to succeed in a newly free country?

10. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found Holocaust survivors’ grandchildren were overrepresented by about 300 percent in psychiatric care referrals in 1988. More recently, Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry of neuroscience at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has conducted research showing that children of Holocaust survivors with PTSD, were born with low cortisol levels, “predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation.” (Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps bodies return to normal after trauma.) In other words, descendants experience their ancestor’s unresolved trauma. This concept of ‘inter-generational trauma’ is prevalent in Daughters of the Occupation, as well as in descendants of Holocaust and indigenous residential school survivors. Do you believe it is possible to pass trauma down through generations? Are there examples of this within your family?

11. This novel shows how many local citizens, who lived peacefully amongst Jews before WWII, collaborated with the Nazis by joining the Arajs Kommando and murdering Jews. How do you think ordinary people become killers? What are some current examples of this type of behavior?

12. By the end of Daughters of the Occupation, Miriam gets closure, knowing what happened to Monya, and Sarah has a stronger sense of identity, after discovering her maternal history. Assuming Miriam has a long life, where do you see these characters in five or ten years? Do you think Sarah will reclaim her faith and live as a Jew? Do you think they will try to get Monya and his family out of Latvia?



Riga, June 1940


THE DAY THE SOVIETS INVADED LATVIA, MIRIAMS WATER broke. She’d just wedged her swollen feet into ivory slingbacks to meet Helena at the Riga’s Opera Café for lunch when her abdomen strained and water gushed onto the vestibule floor. Miriam’s hands went cold. What if this baby came as quickly as her first? Blood would never come out of her good rug, or her divan, for that matter.

Miriam lunged for the telephone, on a tall oak table, dialed Max’s dental office and spoke brusquely to her husband: “You need to come at once or I won’t make it to the hospital.”

MAX TURNED HIS car right when he came to the forest at the end of their street, onto Meza Prospekts. He clumsily shifted his black Ford-Vairogs into fourth gear, jolting Miriam in her seat. The baby kicked her bladder, as if he or she were angry about the bumpy ride.

“If you’re not more careful, I’m going to have this baby in the car.”

Max’s fretful eyes jumped from Miriam’s face to her spherical midsection, underneath her linen trapeze blouse. “You can’t,” he said, his broad chest rising and falling with frantic breaths. “Just keep breathing slowly.” He hunched his shoulders and gripped the steering wheel with knuckles as white as his jacket. He’d rushed from his dental office and smelled of the germ-killing soap he used on his hands so often; his skin was as dry as stone. “Try to think of something else to keep your mind off, you know, the hospital.”

Miriam balled her fists. “Something else? Like what, dancing?”

He gave his wife a sheepish smile. “Sorry. Bad suggestion.”

They passed the Vanšu Bridge, halfway between their Mežaparks home and the Jewish hospital, Bikur Holim, on the other side of Riga. Miriam looked out her window and saw a man riding a bicycle along the edge of the Daugava River, stretched out like a shimmering piece of turquoise silk. She loved the river. Just one week ago, Max, Ilana and Miriam had picnicked at a sandy point north of the bridge, with a feast of cheese on black bread, pickled beets, iced tea and chocolate pastries. Ilana played in the water with Max while Miriam baked like a potato on the sand. The bottom of the lake was too rocky. She might have slipped and fallen. She couldn’t wait to give birth and have her body back to herself.

Max tugged his whiskers. “Just a few more hours and then we’ll have a new baby and life will go back to normal.”

Miriam gaped at her well-meaning, oblivious husband, who’d slept through Ilana’s cries as a baby nine years earlier. His life would chug forward while Miriam’s would stall, and though it was entirely unreasonable, she resented him for being able to have children and go on without missing a step. She thought about her friend Helena, who never complained about the sacrifices she made, as the mother of three children, and worried there was something wrong with her for not looking forward to a second baby.

Max veered left, away from the river. Miriam caught a glimpse of the Central Market hangars. About time. They were finally near the hospital. She dug her heels into the floor to steady herself for the next contraction, already whirling like a blizzard in her abdomen.

Max hit the brakes. Miriam’s shoulders jerked forward. Her heart sprang to her throat when she saw an olive-green tank blocking the road about fifteen meters ahead of them. A red Soviet flag hung from the gun protruding from the tank and there were clumps of men in Soviet uniforms, instantly recognizable with their bloodred collars. Joseph Stalin’s Red Army. Joseph Stalin, who deported people to Siberia if they spoke out against Communism or if they were wealthy. The dictator who had built and presided over a culture of mistrust and terror, one in which even children betrayed their parents. Ten months ago, Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, shocking for its blatant mishegoss, craziness. Why would two countries, known for their flagrant mutual hostility, suddenly agree to be friendly?

A contraction hit. Miriam folded and moaned as the pain shot through her tailbone. It waned as quickly as it had begun. She went limp in her seat. Could hardly catch her breath.

“Max.” Miriam clutched his arm.

His muscles tensed beneath her grip. He peered over his shoulder, shifted the car into reverse and backed up until they came to Marijas Street. He turned sharply and nosed the car down the narrow road that led to Station Square, in the center of Riga. She heard the frenzied voices first, before she saw hundreds of people congregated in the main square, surrounding four huge Soviet tanks.

Shivers ran down Miriam’s sternum at the sight of a man pounding the side of a tank with his fists.

Dievs Padomju, goddamn Soviets!” a long-legged man bellowed at another tank, on Miriam’s right, about six meters away.

Miriam raised her eyes to a unit of armed Red Army soldiers on top of the tank. They wore identical shiny helmets that gave off a menacing air. They seemed oblivious to the jeering below.

Sasodits, dammit,” another man yelled, before kicking the wheels of the same tank, almost as tall as he was.

She jumped in her seat when two Soviet tanks roared to life, their booming engines swallowing up the crowd’s feverish voices as they advanced with a menacing rumble. Beads of sweat drizzled down her forehead as she saw children madly pedaling bicycles out of the square. A peddler, caught unawares, staggered to get his pushcart out of the way of a tank rolling toward him. A vendor’s white-and-pink roses were splayed on the ground. Young boys in school uniforms darted across the square, glancing over their shoulders as if they were being chased.

Then a tram appeared, a jumble of arms and legs, with passengers clinging to every inch of its exterior, even the front, blocking the driver’s view. The tram parted a cluster of people on the street as it rolled along curved tracks, directly toward an oncoming tank. Terror rose in Miriam’s throat as the tank swerved left, headfirst into a knot of pedestrians, crushing them as if they were just stones on the road. Screams ricocheted through the air. Blood splattered across the pavement. The tank continued without stopping, leaving a trail of bloody, flattened bodies.

“My God.” Max’s face went gray.

Miriam’s eyes burned from the ruthless glare of murder, an atrocity she wished she could unsee.

Max began to back out of the square, but only made it three meters before the crowd blocked the car. Guttural voices burst through Miriam’s open window. Russian voices. She hugged her belly. She watched, puzzled, as a column of odd-looking Latvian men walked behind a moving tank with military-like precision. Their out-of-place hip boots caught Miriam’s eye. Hip boots were usually worn for fishing or heavy rain—not in a city during sunny, hot weather like today. And there was an unnerving camaraderie among the men as they raised their fists together and shouted, “Long live Stalin.”

Max leaned over Miriam to see. “Those men are as Latvian as I am French,” he scoffed. “Russians pretending to be Latvians to rouse support. Soviet infiltration and propaganda.”

Miriam squinted and clenched her gut. Max was right—they were surrounded by Russians posing as Latvians. Handfuls of real Latvians looked on, baffled and frightened, but the majority were Soviets, dressed as civilians, hailing the murderous tanks as if they were heroes. Miriam clasped her abdomen as another contraction tore through her insides.

A loud cheer rang out as a Soviet soldier hoisted a fair-haired boy into the air like a prize. The soldier wore a peaked cap over his shaved head, and his chin jutted out almost as far as his nose. He grinned at the boy, who looked back at him warily. All of a sudden Miriam’s heart swelled with love and dread for her unborn baby.

Suddenly, a mounted Latvian policeman placed himself in front of the crowd, one hand holding the reins of his horse, the other gesturing for people to calm down.

Max jumped out of the car.

“Where are you going?” Miriam’s agitated voice melted in the crowd.

Max approached another Latvian policeman, standing about a meter from the car, and pointed at Miriam. Just then, the mounted policeman’s horse cried out in pain, a deep bellow that rattled Miriam’s bones. Soviet soldiers were striking the horse and officer with canes and stones. The horse reared back onto its hind legs. The Latvian officer gripped the saddle but fell sideways. A shot ruptured the air and the fallen officer clutched his neck, blood gushing through his fingers.

A gasp ran through the mob, followed by indecipherable shouts. Men and women scattered in all directions. The sulfurous tang of gunpowder swamped the air. Miriam longed to be invisible. She wanted to look out the window for a way out, but was afraid of being noticed. Of being killed. Of her baby dying. A suffocating pressure crushed her insides and took her breath away.

Max hopped back in the car. The Latvian officer he had spoken to was clearing a path for them. In a strained voice, Max said the Soviets had captured the Latvian border. The Soviets controlled Latvia. Miriam couldn’t speak. She didn’t want to believe Max, but knew every word was true when another shot blasted in the square and people sprinted in all directions like the sun’s rays. Miriam rolled up her window and crossed her legs as a contraction hit like a punch in the gut.

The baby shifted roughly within her womb, squashing her bladder. Miriam panted. Looked down. She felt as if her insides were about to drop, along with the baby. She heard the engine roar to a higher speed, for all of five seconds—until there was a ferocious clang of metal striking metal. Miriam was thrown forward. Her head smacked the dashboard.

Everything went dark.