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Cover Reveal: THE LAST SECRET, by Maia Caron

An exclusive cover reveal and excerpt from a much anticipated new historical espionage thriller. 

Book Cover The Last Secret

Maia Caron, the Métis, Vancouver Island-based author of the critically acclaimed novel Song of Batoche, is back with a brilliant, page-turning, historical espionage thriller.

Described as “extraordinarily powerful” (Genevieve Graham, #1 bestselling author of The Secret Keeper) and “a tense and thrilling ride of a story” (Janie Chang, bestselling author of The Porcelain Moon), The Last Secret is a dazzling and impossible-to-forget dual-timeline story of love, hope, and the unwavering resilience of women.

Inspired by true events and real-life historical figures, The Last Secret follows two remarkable women—Savka, a Ukrainian resistance medic in 1944 Ukraine, and Jeanie, a reclusive artist on Salt Spring Island in 1972—and their inextricable link to each other decades apart.   

“I wrote this book because all my life, men have done their damnedest to write me out of my own story,” says Maia. “I’ve written myself back in with The Last Secret, telling the story of Savka and Jeanie, based on two real women of history who gave me courage; women who misplaced their dreams and maybe themselves along the way, yet fought their way back to life and love. I wrote this book to tell, perhaps, the very last secret of my own . . .”

The Last Secret will be published on September 24th, 2024, but 49th Shelf members are getting an exclusive first look now! Continue below to read an excerpt from the opening chapter. 

And to celebrate the book’s release, we’re giving three lucky readers a chance to win an advance copy of The Last Secret. Full contest details here.




Deremnytsia, Reichskommissariat Ukraine 

February 25, 1944 

The mud beneath Savka Ivanets’ knees vibrated with the shell strikes of Nazi and Soviet artillery and the buzz of Russian planes straf­ing Wehrmacht troops at the front lines, only five kilometers to the east. She knelt at the river’s edge, so close to her mother and her sister, Lilia, their foreheads almost touched. Nazis still held this part of Ukraine, but the Red Army was grinding closer every day. 

“If I eat another stinking chestnut root, I’ll die,” Lilia said, glancing over her shoulder at the forest that carpeted the mountain behind their village. “I’m going to the woods,” she threatened. “Early schavel will be sprouting under the trees.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Savka said. She exchanged a look with her mother, whose weary eyes flicked between her two daughters. Mama, who trembled at the first sign of discord and whose layers of tattered clothing broke Savka’s heart. 

Warming temperatures had melted most of the winter’s snow, leaving half-frozen puddles and turning mud on the banks of the river into a kind of quicksand that sucked at their knees. This ground had been fought over for centuries by Vikings and Russian empresses, Polish princes and Mongol khans. But now it was threatened by another, perhaps more formidable foe. “The forest is a guerrilla war zone,” Savka warned Lilia. “Do you want your throat slit by a Soviet partisan—”

The words were torn from her mouth by the blast of three Messerschmitts roaring overhead on their way to the front. Savka’s nostrils filled with the primeval smell of frigid river water and water chestnut plants that had died off with the coming of winter. Wind scoured the damp skin of her cheeks, and the spectral sun was dimmed suddenly by a thunderhead rolling down the slopes of the mountain, sending shad­ows across the river. Though she didn’t know it, the war would soon sweep Savka up and carry her down a river like this one. She did not yet know there were deeper levels of despair than fearing her husband was dead and searching vainly for food with a stomach empty as a gourd. She looked up at Lilia, who was impatiently waiting for her to take the bait. Was it possible to stop her rebellious sister from getting her­self killed? “If it’s danger you seek, you’ll soon get it when the Russians come,” she said, through gritted teeth. “They’ll rape and murder every Nazi collaborator.” Mama’s hand flew to her mouth, and Savka imme­diately regretted her words. 

Lilia threw down the stick she’d been using to dig out chestnut tubers. “So advises my dear older sister, wife of a Waffen-SS officer, still carrying the medic bag she stole from the back of a Nazi ambulance. I’d rather take my chances with partisans than spend more time with you.”

Savka bit her lip. She was not a rebel like Lilia, but everyone had been forced to take chances during this war. When Savka had answered the call from the Ukrainian Red Cross years ago, her husband, Marko, and the underground had expected her to steal and hoard a cache of medical supplies to treat insurgents. But it was like torture for a woman like her, who would rather be doing anything else than watch for lax Nazi medics to leave their ambulances unattended in the village when­ever they passed through. Each time she managed to snatch a kit or supplies she feared the cold steel of a Luger at the back of her neck. 

“Stop your bickering,” Mama said, rubbing her temple with mud­died fingers. “The Germans have stolen everything from us— Tato, Andriy . . .” 

Savka looked away, striving to bear the impossible. When the Germans had invaded Ukraine in 1941, they’d taken every scrap of food for their armies— bushels of buckwheat, cabbage, and beetroots— leaving her village with only a few goats. To support the family, her father and brother had volunteered for the labor program in Germany. Her tato and Andriy had planned to send their wages, but there’d been no letters home. Savka had heard tales of starvation, armed guards in the factories, and no access to shelter during the British bombing raids. A veritable death sentence.

“I’m going to the woods.” Lilia scrambled to her feet. “See if you can resist a bowl of borshch when I find schavel.”

Savka gave up. “Try not to get yourself killed,” she muttered darkly, getting up off her knees to scrub a beet-shaped tuber in the cold river. She tucked it into her pocket. Beneath her coat, the sleeves of her sweater were pulled down over her trembling hands, the fingernails rimmed black with mud. She glanced back at the farmer’s field, still covered in a mantle of thawing snow, and into the forest, not three hundred meters away, the leafless trees consuming whatever light remained of the day. Once every villager’s childhood playground, the heavily wooded slopes of the mountain had become an escalating battleground between two kinds of guerrilla fighters: Ukrainian underground insurgents and Soviet par­tisan gangs of outlaws who had been parachuted behind the front lines.

Lilia was stomping off through the reeds at the river’s edge when Savka shouted after her. “Wait.” A shrouded figure had emerged from the forest. It paused a moment before seeing the three women at the river and struck out across the field toward them. 

“A partisan?” Mama said, her voice a tremor. “Out in broad daylight.”

“It’s just a refugee who’s wandered from the main road,” Savka called to Lilia, if only to calm her mother’s fears. “But he might be hungry enough to fight you for chestnut roots.” Somehow the burden had fallen to Savka, eldest daughter, to bring her family through the war unscathed, a task that had become increasingly difficult as the front closed in on them. She sank to her knees again and crawled toward another square inch of mud that had yet to be turned over, ruthlessly sinking her stick, and feeling the bark vibrate against her hand to the pounding of Nazi howitzers. 

From the corner of Savka’s eye, she could see Lilia watching the strange figure cross the field with an expression of curiosity and unease. “Gerhard will not allow any harm to come to us,” Lilia said, as if her Nazi tank commander lover could somehow protect them. “The Germans will be victorious.”

A burst of rattling fire came from the Soviet machine gun nests at the front, which had become a kind of background symphony, the repetitive boom of antiaircraft guns like a thundering timpani drum in a Wagner opera. 

“That sound you hear,” Savka said, “is the Germans being destroyed by the Red Army.”

Lilia blundered back through the reeds, yelping when a gust of wind lashed at the Victory roll she’d teased and pinned into her hair that morning. Her husband, Vasyl, had served in a Schuma battalion but had been killed last year in a battle with partisans in Belarus. Shortly after they’d learned of his death, Gerhard had come into their lives, when the village had become a base for the Fifth SS Panzer Division and every family was forced to billet its officers. Despite Savka’s and Mama’s efforts to prevent it, Lilia had fallen in love with the Nazi tank com­mander— who’d come to conquer, starve, and enslave them. She’d cut her braids and curled her hair to mimic a picture of Betty Grable in a battered Photoplay magazine he’d brought her. 

“I wouldn’t expect you to take a risk,” Lilia said, her face lit up by tracer flares and artillery that blazed the clouds orange and red above the tree line. The sisters shared dark blonde hair, but Lilia had blue eyes to Savka’s brown, and— on the rare occasion she chose to unleash it— their mama’s gap-toothed smile. “Perhaps your SS husband has had his throat slit by a partisan,” Lilia sulked.

Savka froze in the act of yanking out a particularly difficult root. She’d sworn to herself she wouldn’t brood over Marko’s fate. But Lilia wasn’t making it easy. The first flakes of snow swirled around their heads, and she drew the frayed ends of her shawl over her nose to keep out the smell of bog, chimney smoke, and fear that her husband might very well be dead. 

Marko had expressed frustration in his last letter, complaining that partisans were organizing themselves in villages and forest strong­holds, blowing up Nazi-held bridges and supply depots, and causing so much damage to the German army that his Waffen-SS division of ten thousand Ukrainian men had been kept back from the front with orders to destroy them. Savka had longed for a little more personal informa­tion. “Dead men do not write to their wives,” she said to Lilia, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. 

“That letter came three months ago,” Lilia, said, always with the last word. “The firefight we’re hearing might be his unit getting slaughtered.” 

It began to snow in earnest— cottony, wet flakes drifting out of the clouded sky. Savka shook her head to dispel the image of her husband, a bullet in his chest, left to bleed out in the woods, another Ukrainian warrior murdered by Stalin’s partisans. She hadn’t seen Marko in over a year, and though she might insist to her family that her husband was still alive, she’d already steeled herself for a letter from the German high command and spending the rest of her years as a widow. 

The big guns at the front were silent for a blessed moment, which somehow made the Red Army seem that much closer. “I think it’s worth the risk to get schavel,” Lilia persisted, staring at the forest, as if she were already there, foraging among the trees for her precious sorrel shoots. And ignoring the ominous threat that hung over them in the brittle air, an imposed silence that swooped down like the mute wings of an owl. “Our children are starving.”

Savka’s eyes were drawn once more to the refugee, who was almost halfway across the field, draped in layers of coats and scarves, head down, intent on reaching them. At the sudden percussive thud of an infantry mortar from the front, the figure stumbled and fell, then awk­wardly hauled himself to standing. Fear rose like poison in her throat. Was it possible that Mama had been right, and this really was a Soviet partisan? If one had ventured out of the forest, there would be others. And Lilia’s daughter, Sofiy, and Taras were alone in the house. “We must get back,” she said, rubbing mud off her hands. “Warm ourselves at the fire, boil these roots, and drown out the incessant noise of men trying to kill each other.”

Mama slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Taras is safe,” she murmured in her ear, and Savka felt those worries ease in her mother’s embrace. “You will not be separated from your son,” Mama soothed, almost rocking her. “Remember before the war, when you were in the garden past sundown and Taras would come out with a candle and a book— always with his nose in a book?”

Savka blinked back tears. Yes, she remembered. Her son was smart. There were hopes for his future, university in Kyiv, the life of a scholar. “I didn’t bring him up to carry a rifle for Stalin,” she said, forcing bright­ness. “At thirteen.” Mama patted her shoulder and Savka bent again to grub the root she’d been working out of the mud. Why did Marko not send another letter? She said to Lilia, “The war will soon be over. We will stick together and survive it.” How tired she was of uttering such platitudes, when she could do nothing to protect Marko, and their son was at risk.

The wind had picked up and snow was falling heavily now in a cloaked, silent curtain of white. Savka watched snowflakes melt before her in the marsh mud, one after the other. Something so beautiful, destroyed by the cruel earth. What Lilia had threatened was true: With her lover in a tank battalion, and Savka’s husband in the Waffen-SS, the Soviets would consider the entire family Nazi collaborators. Before the front rolled through their village, they would become fugitives, forced to leave Mama’s house, which had been in the family for generations, forced to leave this village and perhaps Ukraine, forever. 

“Which one of you is Waffen-Sturmbannführer Ivanets’s wife?” 

Savka jumped to her feet, the mud sucking at her boot soles. She turned to find the mysterious figure— a woman— had arrived without them noticing and was now standing among the reeds on the riverbank, sketched shadow-like against the gray light. Behind her, Mama let out a gasp, her hand shooting out to take Savka’s. 

Lilia took her other arm. “It’s a courier from the German high com­mand,” she whispered in Savka’s ear. “She’s come to tell you Marko is dead.” 

Feeling all her hope snuffed out, like the snowflakes on the ground, Savka leaned into her family, tears hovering on her eyelashes. “How did my husband die?” she asked, bracing herself for details she did not want to hear. 

The woman made a sound of exasperation and slashed her way through the reeds, soon standing before them, her desiccated boots sink­ing in the mud. “How should I know if he’s dead or alive? Slava Ukraini,” she said, tapping a fist to her chest in greeting. “Natalka, from Kuzak’s bunker.” She paused. “I’m only interested in his medic wife.”

Heroiam Slava,” Savka replied, letting out the breath she’d been holding. Hunger and fear had already brought her close to the break­ing point. Confirmation of Marko’s death would have sent her over the edge. Somewhere out there, in this dirty war, her husband might still be alive. “You’re a banderivka?” she asked, staring into Natalka’s dark, startling eyes. Women insurgents who followed Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, did not live with men in the bunkers. Natalka was several years younger than Savka, eyes hazed with suffering, wearing a coat and trousers that were too big for her. An old leather holster around her waist held a Korovin pistol, and a skunk smell of body odor emanated from within her layers of ragged scarves. 

“Yes, I’m a banderivka.” Natalka scowled, looking down her nose at them. “This is what you village women do to support the under­ground? Root like pigs in the mud?”

“We’re digging water chestnut roots for soup,” Mama offered, her hand still in Savka’s, gripping it tight.

Natalka made a face. “We eat better on the mountain,” she claimed, her cheeks hollow with obvious hunger, her thin body marked by a winter spent in an underground bunker. 

If one looked past the grim determination and grating attitude, Natalka was pretty. Savka couldn’t help but feel grudging admiration for a woman who loved her country so much she’d live with men in a glorified cellar, fighting for a free and independent Ukraine. She’d never been in such a place but envisioned a damp, claustrophobic hole with just enough room to walk past the narrow sleeping benches lining the walls. She shivered violently. Below the muddied hem of her skirt, she’d reinforced her stockinged legs with long strips of flannel torn from an old sheet. But the temperature was dipping and cold air on the wet and muddy strips had frozen them into ice-caked armor. “You aren’t supposed to leave your bunker in the winter,” Savka reminded her. 

“You don’t say,” Natalka said. “Who else is going to keep the par­tisans from descending on your village and stealing your sons?”

Partisans. There was only one reason an insurgent from Kuzak’s bunker had emerged from the forest, asking for Marko Ivanets’s medic wife. “What’s happened?”

“I need you to come with me,” Natalka said, ignoring her question.

Savka shrank back. “Not to the forest.”

“Where else?”

At the sudden staccato rip of machine gun fire, the four women looked up as two planes roared over the mountain— a Soviet Yak-3 chasing a Messerschmitt that climbed in evasive maneuvers and did a slow roll, the black swastika on its tail flashing as it attempted to elude the enemy pilot. 

Lilia clasped her hands in mock prayer. “Destroy the Soviet,” she muttered, “please,” as though Gerhard himself were in the cockpit. But the Russian plane was faster and emptied its machine guns at the Messerschmitt, finally scoring a direct hit. Smoke rose from the German plane’s wing, and it spiraled, quickly losing altitude. 

The Messerschmitt careened over the river, too fast to give the pilot time to bail out. The engine stalled and it disappeared behind a hill, exploding in a fireball in the forest. 

Numb now to this common occurrence, the women drew scarves over their noses when the sudden cloud of diesel fumes drifted to them on air. Natalka shrugged. “One less German to steal your food. One more Soviet to rape your daughters.”

Lilia flinched as if she’d been kicked. When the Russian plane banked and roared over their heads, returning to the front, she followed it with a pointed finger. “Gerhard has taught me to shoot,” she said ruthlessly.

Savka lost patience with her idiot sister. “He’s playing with you, Lilia— he can’t take you back to Berlin.”

Lilia stalked off a short distance, smashing half-frozen puddles with her boots. There was a smear of mud on her cheek. She looked too much like the little girl Savka had fought with in childhood just as bitterly as she did today.

“You’re jealous,” Lilia said over her shoulder. “Marko is dead, and you have no prospects.”

Savka’s eyes smarted with tears. It was one thing to imagine Marko dead, another to hear it from the lips of someone she loved just as much. She tried to ignore Natalka, who watched this sisterly squabble with her arms crossed. If Marko had been killed, how would Savka save Taras from the encroaching Red Army? A widow and her children suffered if they did not have a man to protect them. 

Mama placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Lilia is lonely and needs a father for her daughter.” She sighed heavily, gripping the handle of her walking stick. 

“I’m lonely, too,” Savka cried, finally breaking. 

“This is all rather touching,” Natalka took Savka by the arm, “but I need you to come with me,” she ordered. “Now.”

“My son is expecting us back,” Savka said, trying to pull her arm away.

But Natalka didn’t listen, dragging Savka from the protective embrace of her mother and sister.

Excerpted from The Last Secret by Maia Caron. Copyright © 2024 Maia Caron. Reproduced with permission from Doubleday Canada, Penguin Random House Canada. All rights reserved. 

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