Amanda McCrina’s World War II novel Traitor is a riveting story you haven’t seen before

Traitor by Amanda McCrina. Image Courtesy Macmillan Publishers
Traitor by Amanda McCrina. Image Courtesy Macmillan Publishers /

Amanda McCrina’s harrowing novel Traitor illuminates a little known aspect of World War II even as it explores complex issues of identity, loyalty, and betrayal.

Amanda McCrina’s Traitor is a historical fiction novel that centers on a little known aspect of the second World War. While most World War II novels tend to focus on similar themes – the horrors of the Holocaust and horribleness of the Nazis, the bravery of those in occupied territories who stood up to fascism, the arrival of American soldiers seeking to liberate Europe.

Traitor is not that book, though it indirectly touches on several of those themes.

Instead, McCrina’s novel depicts the brutal violence that occurred in a disputed, war-torn region on the border of Ukraine and Poland, which was invaded first by Germans, and then Soviets, groups who simultaneously fought each other and battled resistance forces from both occupied countries. The constantly shifting occupying forces meant that safety is never assured, loyalties are often questioned and friends, allies, and everyone in between betray one another to survive.

Technically, Traitor is a YA novel, but probably not in the way you’ve come to expect. The characters are young men, yes, but there are no love triangles or magic to be found here. Instead, there are life and death decisions, often made at the point of a gun, as they try to decide who to trust in a world gone mad.

The story follows seventeen-year-old Tolya, who is half Polish and half Ukrainian and serves as a sniper in the Soviet Army. The changing borders and loyalties in his homeland have left him unsure of where he belongs – his Polish heritage and Catholic faith means his Ukranian countrymen hate him, and his decision to join the Red Army has made him a collaborator in the eyes of his Polish neighbors.

The story swaps POVs between Tolya and Aleksey Kobryn, a Ukrainian nationalist whose father was a famous freedom fighter and who is now a squad leader in the Ukrainian resistance forces with his own set of divided loyalties and secrets to keep. The two characters’ paths cross at the beginning of the novel when Solovey spearheads a mission to smuggle Tolya out of the occupied Galician city of Lwow (or Lviv to Ukrainians) after he impulsively shoots a political officer.

After that, the narrative frequently jumps back and forth in time between Tolya in 1944, following the Soviet liberation of the city from Germany, and Aleksey three years earlier, with German forces poised to invade the city following the Soviets’ initial retreat. This constant shifting of perspectives means readers are left with a lot to keep track of, as several characters are referenced in both time periods and some are alive in one when they aren’t in another.

As a storytelling device, it’s wildly effective, deftly recreating the stressful reality in which things like loyalties, allies, and enemies could turn on a dime and reminding us that no matter how different their stories might seem on the surface, they’ve both been through many of the same horrors.  In practice, however, it’s more than a bit confusing for readers – particularly those that don’t realize that there’s a very helpful glossary of names, ranks, and organizations at the end of the book – to keep everyone straight. (If only there was a similar timeline of who has betrayed whom, who is working for whom, or who has double-crossed someone else.)

Perhaps that’s the point of it all – when everyone can be seen as a traitor if the right person is asking the questions, who can you trust? How do you make choices?  And what are you willing to do if you become desperate enough, just to survive?

McCrina’s prose pulls no punches, refusing to soften the horrors of war – and, perhaps more importantly, its aftermath. There are grisly scenes of violence and torture, matter of fact depictions of not just battlefield deaths, but the ways in which Soviets, Germans and Jews rounded up those they viewed as dangerous or degenerate. There are multiple tension-filled chase scenes as our leads are forced to run for their lives – from advancing armies, the Soviet secret police, and more. Traitor is a war novel written with a younger audience in mind, but it doesn’t spare its readers, and it’s a better story for doing so.