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A Journey Across the Volga Frontier - an Editorial Review of "The Empress' Gift"

Book Blurb:

In 1763, Empress Catherine the Great issued a compelling manifesto recruiting European emigrants to tame the wilderness along Russia's mighty Volga River.

Powerful motives drive Lady Amila and two serfs-siblings Rein and Eva-to forge an unlikely alliance and join the first German emigrants. Following a perilous escape and year-long journey, they learn the true intent of the Empress' Gift. To survive, the naïve trio and fellow colonists must utilize keen instincts and rapidly develop new skills to fight powerful enemies determined to see them fail.

Sparks fly as the intense drama unfolds. The pioneers must outwit a corrupt Russian bureaucracy, marauding forest thieves, nomadic raiders, and a ruthless Count-all the while battling merciless forces of nature. Yet, equally daunting for Amila and Rein are struggles that come from within.

Told by multiple characters and supported by a vivid cast, the thoroughly-researched novel chronicles the unflinching resolve of pioneers seeking freedom from oppression for themselves and future generations. Debut author Ellen Laubhan draws from her ancestral roots to tell the story, which will appeal to millions of Volga German descendants living in the United States, as well as fans of authentic historical fiction worldwide.

Fall 1763: St. Petersburg, Russia: "Lady Amila studied the beaming faces of her fellow colonists gazing transfixed as Empress Catherine addressed the first emigrants. Swathed in hope and bound by the belief that a better life beckoned, they listened, mesmerized by the queen's every word. Then, with a raise of the empress' hand, servants opened baskets and threw handfuls of rubles over the emigrants' heads. As the paper currency rained down, the astonished colonists hurried to collect their share. Roars of gratitude shattered the silence. Standing apart, Amila reeled as the disturbance sent birds careening from the nearby trees."

Author Bio:

Ellen Laubhan grew up in Follett, Texas, a small farm community of predominantly Volga Germans, where she learned to appreciate her heritage as a German from Russia. She was in college when her grandparents, Martha (Ehrlich) and Jona Laubhan, presented her with a book called Ehrlich: a Family History, 1763-1970, which reinforced interest in her ancestry. Reading historical fiction throughout her life, she believed an important story was missing. Ellen pursued a nagging desire to tell the exciting, tumultuous story of the first Volga German pioneers, focusing on their unflinching resolve to make a better life for themselves and future generations. Ellen earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and communications from Texas A&M University, Canyon, and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Wyoming. She is a member of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) and Wyoming Writers, Inc. Visit Ellen online at or by email at

Editorial Review:

Amila hugged her knees, staring into the distance while Gabe nuzzled her. He'll carry out that threat, she thought. Opening her mouth to cry out, no sound escaped. Since her mother's death two years ago, she was terrified the count might use her as a token in his self-serving ambition. Young women of high birth were expected to marry titled noblemen. She knew it would be her fate. But not this match, never a match like this.

For anyone interested in the epic journeys of settlers who came to the United States, traveled the Oregon Trail, and how their lives unfolded along the Manifest Destiny, the destiny of the pioneers to spread dominion and democracy across the untouched frontier... this is a revelation of a different kind of journey into the wilds of an untouched land. While many of the European settlers opted for the U.S. West in the 1800s, another expansion occurred in the late 1700s when Catherine the Great of Russia extended an invitation for settlers to emigrate and develop the vast lands along the Volga River.

It says German people, no matter their station, are invited to come and settle on free land. Money for travel will be provided. Colonists are to have many privileges: the right to govern themselves, freedom from military service and taxes, freedom of religion, and land ownership. It lists the lands open to settlements.... Think what this means – land to farm, freedom. You speak Russian, Amila. You have traveled, and you are stronger than you know. You can lead my children to this new home. Life has more in store than that demon has planned for all of you. This is my wish. You must all go!”

Lady Amila, a noblewoman in Germany, is faced with a gloomy future after her mother dies, leaving her the ward of her stepfather who is an ambitious scoundrel seeking to make his name and fortune by marrying her off to a nobleman of his choosing. She is imprisoned in this life as a woman, yet she seeks freedom as much as the servants in her care. Eva, her maid, and Reinhardt, Eva's brother who serves as a serf farmer working the land, both desire a release, as well, especially after Amila's stepfather brings more hardship to them both. When Amila discovers this invitation offered by the Empress, as well as some secret documents given to her by Eva and Rein's mother before she dies, she comes up with a plan of action. The three of them will leave Germany and escape to this new land full of hope and promises. Freedom for them all lay within reach if they can thwart her stepfather's evil plans.

Thinking back on Empress Catherine's speech, Amila wondered how it was possible for anyone, especially a woman, to wield so much power, and to use that power to initiate a massive colonization program and mobilize the resources to support it. It was though the queen had spread a protective cloak around the shoulders of her colonists.

The journey across Germany, across the Baltic Sea, and south into the wilderness of Russia is fraught with danger, sickness, brutal weather, hunger, thieves, raiders, and insufferable corrupt politicians and military leaders who take advantage of the emigrants at every turn. And when the Count discovers the whereabouts of Amila, Eva, and Rein, he stops at nothing to bring them all to ruin. With all of the outward struggles blasting them from every direction, Amila also faces inner turmoils as she contends with her own station in life as a noblewoman, and the responsibility of seeing others as equals instead of subservient... as well as her growing attraction to Rein, who is far beneath her in rank. Even Rein is challenged to overcome his prejudice as the journey binds them all together in more ways than one.

At the heart of this story is hope, a universal theme for all people no matter the background or location. Whether facing the struggles across the American West, or the search for a better life in the frigid wilderness of Russia, people are always searching for a paradise promising freedom, and this book offers a glimpse into a story not often told in history. It is full of courage, love, resiliency, and hope. The immense research is very evident throughout the narrative, and is quite educational for any reader wanting to know more about the Volga Germans, and gives the book a high degree of authenticity. Character development is rich and well-developed, and you truly get a sense of the struggles facing them, however at times the historical aspect translated a tad bit as a non-fictional recitation of events with the fictional story padding the history. Only a tad, mind you, as this did not detract from the overall enjoyment of this fascinating period in Russian history. Learning this about Catherine the Great, an immensely captivating historical person, and this invitation to colonize the Volga was well worth the read and caused this reviewer to continue delving into the history well after the book was finished. Which is what any good historical novel should do! In all, The Empress' Gift is a very worthy read for any historical aficionado!!

The empress' gift. It must first be shaped by us with great toil. We have no assurance it will repay the labor and time spent,” reflected Georg. “Did we think it would be paradise? Perhaps we've found a lost paradise, good friends!”


The Empress' Gift” by Ellen Laubhan receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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