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September 16, 2022
By Karen Clark
A novel set in Ukraine tells a harrowing historical story.

In William Durbin and Barbara Durbin’s suspenseful YA novel The Hidden Room, a Ukrainian Jewish family struggles to survive the final year of World War II. Although William has published multiple books through traditional channels, the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine made publishing The Hidden Room feel especially timely and urgent; the Durbins chose to self-publish in order to expedite the process of getting the book into readers’ hands.

What roles did you play in coauthoring the book? How did you divide the work?
William: My wife has been a great help to me with all my novels—she came up with many of the creative ideas in my previous books. We’re an ideal combination: Barbara has a great imagination and an ability to create characters and invent stories; I enjoy spending long hours reading through archival material and interviewing people. I find joy in rewriting the same sentence 20 times to get it just right, a task which would bore Barbara to death. We also coauthored a lumberjack novel, Dead Man’s Rapids.

Barbara: I focus on characters and plot, and try to add humor; as a retired teacher, I know what amuses kids. He does the research, outlines the story, and types. After the first draft, we revise together.

How did you research The Hidden Room?

William: A National Geographic issue telling the story of a Jewish family hidden in a Ukrainian cave during the last year of World War II sparked the idea. We Fight to Survive, Esther Stermer’s memoir of guiding her family through this frightening time, was an ideal source. A book recounting Esther’s story, The Secret of the Priest’s Grotto, and a film, No Place on Earth, were invaluable, as were major Holocaust museums. Since the novel is primarily set underground, I visited a cave with similar geologic structure.

Barbara: William did that trip on his own. It was a commercial cave in Wisconsin, so the entrance wasn’t challenging like it is in the book—and was in real life for the Stermers. Spending even a limited time in total darkness underground, feeling the cold and breathing in the dampness, gave him a vivid sense of how challenging, both physically and psychologically, it would be to live in a cave an entire year.

How did you develop your protagonists?

William: The character of Eli is modeled after my youngest grandson, who loves sweets and used to tell that ridiculous “in your eyeball” joke. His sister is patterned after my granddaughter, who is super smart, kind, a talented flute player, and has a beautiful voice.

Why did you self-publish?

William: Prior to The Hidden Room, I’d published a dozen historical novels with Random House and Scholastic, but our agent of 30 years is no longer working. And the topic of Ukraine is so current that self-publishing was the only way to get the book out quickly.

The project did not feel rushed; we had done three years of research and multiple revisions. It was satisfying to hire a copy editor and a book designer and have full control over the final product. Self-publishing also allows us the freedom to donate 50% of the royalties to the United Nations food program in Ukraine.

Why did you set the novel in Ukraine?

William: Ukraine is where the real story upon which the book is based took place. It is disheartening to see the violence Putin is currently visiting on Ukraine. Given the brutal atrocities committed by Stalin and Hitler, we’d hoped that Ukraine, famous as a center of achievement in the arts, science, athletics, and entertainment, would be spared.

There are descriptive passages of ineffable peace and beauty, often when the protagonists have a moment to step back from the terror and deprivation of their circumstances to take in the beauty of the natural world.

William: We are fortunate to live on a lake in northeastern Minnesota. The beauty of the natural world offers us peace and solace. Holocaust survivors often recount how memories of home and places they’d treasured helped them prevail.

There’s a paranormal element to the story. Are there more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy?

William: Like Hamlet, I believe there are elements beyond the physical world we can’t explain. However, the spiritual element of The Hidden Room was Barbara’s idea.

Barbara: I was inspired by two experiences. While recovering from bone cancer surgery, I was in great pain one night, when my deceased mother appeared in my bedroom and sat with me until morning. Though she didn’t speak, her presence was comforting. And my eldest grandson, at the age of two, described a man sitting in a rocking chair in his bedroom. He called him the “rocking chair man,” and said he talked with him at night.

The novel has scenes of brutality and violence that would be strong fare even in a book for adults—for example, when the narrator encounters a survivor of the Nazis’ killing fields. Did you think these might be too difficult for young adult readers?

William: I agonized over the killing field scene. However, early readers felt it was essential to the plot. Since it’s a YA novel, rather than middle grade, and because the incident happened just as I describe it, I wanted to give young readers a sense of what the war was really like.

War should never be glorified by a book, film, or video game, but should be depicted for what it is—a tragic and shameful event. I wanted to honor the memories of the Jews who were motivated to survive the war in order to serve as witnesses. Their goal was to live so that they could tell the world what the Nazis had done, thereby ensuring that it would never happen again.

Unfortunately, there are Holocaust deniers, similar to the twisted folks who pretend school shootings like Sandy Hook and Uvalde never happened. Such people must be confronted with the facts. As Esther Stermer writes, “The truth of our horror must be told fully, in no sense purged.”