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Author Judith McCormack.Kathryn Hollinrake/Handout

Judith McCormack travelled to the Kurapaty Forest on the outskirts of Minsk a few years ago for a trip that was mostly research, but part pilgrimage too. She was preparing to write her next book, a novel set around the Great Purge of the Soviet era.

It was a pretty place, very green, with many trees. But underneath is a mass grave. Tens of thousands of people were murdered between 1937 and 1941 by the NKVD, the Soviet arm of government that included the secret police. Many of its victims were members of the Belorussian intelligentsia – teachers, journalists. Many were Jewish.

For McCormack, this history is personal. Her maternal grandfather came from Belarus. He left in the early 20th century, initially for New York. But other members of the family stayed behind. As Jews, they faced persecution from the Soviets and, if they survived that, the Nazis.

Visiting the region was an eerie, emotional and highly sensory experience, McCormack recalled. “There’s sunlight filtering through the trees. And it’s very quiet, actually. So it lends itself to contemplation of what happened there,” she said during a recent interview from her Toronto home.

“They have parts of it cordoned off where they think most of the bodies are – they don’t know for sure. It’s not a big place, so if there’s up to 250,000 bodies there, you can’t be sure that you’re not walking over bones.”

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Her book The Singing Forest, published this fall, was recently named one of the ten best historical novels of 2021 by The New York Times. The novel is told from various perspectives, in different timelines. Much of it takes place in Belarus, “a country of shifting boundaries, a map reshaped so many times that its edges are frayed,” as McCormack writes.

In a forest near Minsk, two boys, aged 11 and 9, make a horrific discovery while out with their dog: a skull buried in the soil. The children had been warned to stay away from the forest, and that made exploring the place irresistible. “Something so hidden, so lied about must be worth knowing, and they wanted to know,” writes McCormack.

Far away, in 2019 Toronto, young lawyer Leah Jarvis is assigned to a case involving a suspected war criminal. Stefan Drozd, an immigrant from Belarus in his 90s, is facing deportation, accused of lying about his past – brutality, torture, murder – upon entry to Canada.

Back in Eastern Europe about a century earlier, a young boy whose mother has died in childbirth lives a terrible life in the country, abused relentlessly by his father. He must escape. Minsk beckons.

These separate but not unrelated elements of the story come together in ways that may seem obvious in this summary, but are masterfully explored and interwoven in the novel. They also allow for levity – The Singing Forest is not an endless grind of horrors. But it is a serious examination, including one key question at its core: What drives people to commit such horrible crimes?

“I see, like everyone else, stories of terrible evils in the paper all the time – atrocities, genocides,” McCormack says. “I wanted to try to understand how these things happen. Obviously, there are social and political factors that drive them. At its root is something that I find fundamentally inexplicable about how humans can do these things to each other.”

McCormack was born outside Chicago, but her family moved to Canada when she was a baby – first Montreal, then Toronto. She has several law degrees and worked for many years as a practicing lawyer, holding positions that included chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Most recently, she was assistant dean at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.

Her short story collection The Rule of Last Clear Chance, published in 2003, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Backspring, was shortlisted for the 2016 First Novel Award.

In 2016, she gave up her law career for full-time writing. “My other two books, I’d been writing them on the side, trying to squish them around a career,” says McCormack, 67, who was still working on The Singing Forest in 2020.

“I got to spend so much more time on it – to do more research, to do more everything; to go into more depth. I think it’s just a much better book than the other two.”

She was elated by the New York Times accolade. Now, she’s kicking around ideas for her next project.

“I’m thinking of things, researching here and there,” she says. “But yes, it’s going to be less grim.”

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