Set in 1969 Prague, Torch explores the devastating impact of a totalitarian regime and the different ways young people carve out futures for themselves against impossible odds. The story is told from the perspective of three characters after 17-year-old Pavol fatally sets himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Author Lyn Miller-Lachmann had her work cut out for her when writing this historical fiction. Today she joins us to give us the details. Read on to hear about her research and to download the free educator materials.
Torch begins with a dramatic and provocative event – a high school student’s self-immolation to protest the Soviet invasion of his country, Czechoslovakia, and the crushing of his people’s newly won freedoms. It’s based on the real life suicide of Czech university student Jan Palach in 1969. Why did you choose to highlight this moment in history?
When Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion, he hoped to inspire an uprising to throw out the invaders. And while tens of thousands of people attended his funeral, the Communist regime successfully subdued any rebellion because they controlled all the media outlets, education, and employment. In 2017, I watched the three-part miniseries Burning Bush, which showed how the regime slandered and persecuted Palach’s family and friends. While the docudrama focused on the courageous lawyer who represented the Palach family, I wondered what happened to his young friends who were trying to keep alive the political freedom they had attained during the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Were they expelled from school or fired from their jobs? Did they try to escape the country because they couldn’t go back to living without choices? Did they knuckle under and follow the rules, no matter how absurd those rules were, so they could live their constricted lives in peace? Even if these weren’t life or death choices for Palach’s friends – or for the friends of my invented character, Pavol Bartoš – those choices they made as teens and young adults would influence the course of their lives. For them, there were no do-overs, no second chances.
You mentioned a docudrama that inspired this book, Burning Bush. What other sources from your research helped to shape this book?
I cast a wide net for my research, which included documentary and feature films, memoirs, oral histories, novels, and museum exhibits. Milan Kundera’s classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place at the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion and in the following years and portrays the dilemmas of people who fled the country and the people who stayed behind for a variety of reasons, mostly personal. I came to realize that leaving one’s country, no matter how unbearable living in that country has become, is easier said than done. To quote the contemporary Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” Ultimately, Torch is about home, what it means to love your home despite its flaws, and what it means to leave your home when the people in power don’t want you around but they’re also doing everything they can to prevent you from leaving.
The teens in Torch are described as misfits. Why did you choose to focus on outsiders in this society?
Autocracies are by definition intolerant. They define themselves by who is included and who isn’t and mobilize people to go after the misfits in order to maintain their own power and keep their population in line. However, anyone can be, or become, a misfit. Štěpán and Tomáš appear to have it made in their society. Štěpán is a champion hockey player, and Tomáš the son of the regional Communist Party leader. But Štěpán is also queer and a free-thinker, and Tomáš would be diagnosed as autistic today. Because of what they want – for Štěpán, to be his authentic self, and for Tomáš, to belong and have friends – they step over an invisible line. Or, to be exact, they find themselves on the wrong side of the invisible line when their mutual best friend, Pavol, makes a choice that they would never have made for themselves. On the other hand, Pavol’s girlfriend, Lída, never had the chance to choose. Her life is constrained because of the choices her father made, and her unborn child’s choices are limited by the choices she and Pavol made. Free and just societies don’t punish children for their parents’ choices, but here we are.
You didn’t grow up in a Communist dictatorship. What aspects of your lived experience do you share with your characters?
I write about this in my Author’s Note for Torch. I grew up in the opposite of a Communist dictatorship, in a very right-wing community in Texas. However, as we’re coming to discover – and something I learned in my government classes in high school – authoritarian regimes of the left and the right have a lot more in common with each other than they have with liberal democratic countries and societies. Along with my other research, I spoke with people who had grown up in Cuba and the Soviet Union and used multiple authenticity readers. My own lived experience is related to the character of Tomáš, as I’m autistic, diagnosed in adulthood, but I never fit in and served as a favorite target of bullies in school. Like Tomáš, I would do anything to have a friend (which was the principal theme of my 2013 middle grade novel, Rogue) and struggled with being a child of privilege on one hand but inherently unsuitable for my society on the other. And I based his train set and its fate on my giant Lego town and what it would feel like for me to have to give it up.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from researching or writing Torch?
As the manuscript was about to go out on submission, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) named the Ore Mountains, where Torch is set, a World Heritage Site. This area along the border of Germany and the Czech Republic has been a mining region since the 12th century. The Communist governments on both sides of the border – Czechoslovakia and East Germany – expanded mining to the point where the region became one of the most environmentally degraded areas of the world. In the 1960s, the Czechoslovak regime demolished the entire city center of Most, relocating tens of thousands of people, in order to dig coal underneath.
Praise for Torch
★”Equally terrifying and captivating.”—starred, Kirkus Reviews
★”Miller-Lachmann deftly balances moments of happiness and hope within an ominously rendered narrative marked by fear and potential catastrophe. This captivating political thriller is perfect for Ruta Sepetys fans.”-starred, Publishers Weekly
“I cannot praise this book highly enough…The materialism of capitalism the Czech authorities warn their young people against when Western books and records are banned can also crush the hopeful young soul. May the power of this novel be part of the solution.”-Historical Novel Society
“A bold and uncompromising portrayal of life under an authoritarian regime, Lyn Miller-Lachman’s Torch combines nuanced characters and a compelling narrative into a powerful story about survival, humanity, and hope.”-G. D. Falksen, award-winning author of The Secret Life of Kitty Granger, Maiden of War, and The Ouroboros Cycle
Free Educator Resources
Download the discussion guide as well as a resource list from the Lerner website!
Connect with the Author
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is an author, educator, and editor. Her novels include Surviving Santiago, Rogue, and Torch. She earned a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a Masters in Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and English, Lyn enjoys traveling to new places. She lives part-time in New York City and Lisbon, Portugal.
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