Book Quote:

“There is a black-and-white photograph of a family: a man, woman, and five children. Scrawled on the back, in tight archaic script, are the words, Willow Creek, Alberta, 1933. This will be their only photograph together….

Within three years, this farm will be foreclosed. Two years later, one will die. Two others, of whom there is no photograph, will be murdered.

But this day, in the moment right after the shutter clicks shut, this family takes a deep breath and smiles.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (SEP 11, 2009)

Under This Unbroken Sky is the story of two related families living on the prairie of Western Canada in the 1930s. They are part of the diaspora of the Ukrainian agrarian settlement to that region that began in the late 1800s and continued through the First World War.

Theo and his family settle on land leased to them by his sister Anne and her husband Stefan, who own the adjacent tract. The novel opens as Theo arrives from a two-year prison sentence in the old country after stealing grain to feed his family. It was his grain and he had been swindled out of it. His sister Anne is a rattled woman married to a drinking ex-solider of the Russian Tsar. Neither Anne nor Stefan are well suited to their new homestead life. Anne grows unhinged as the struggles of prairie existence mount; and Stefan admits to never being cut out for farm life. He longs for the city and the respect he enjoyed back home. Theo, on the other hand, is hard working and uncomplaining, as is his wife Maria. They and their five children flourish, though not without backbreaking work and hardship. They successfully settle the land. But land, as D.H. Lawrence observed, can never really be possessed, and it is the land that is the central character of this wonderful debut novel.

To this day, Ukrainian Canadians comprise the ninth largest ethic group in Canada and account for the third largest collection of Ukrainians, after Ukraine and Russia. Author Shandi Mitchell in a short essay about the story, tells us that her grandfather came to Canada from Ukraine. She relates that on her eighteenth birthday her father gave her a “bottle of whisky in a velvet pouch that he had bought the day I was born.” Then he said, “I have a secret to tell you.” I won’t divulge the secret, as it is central to the book. Shandi continues that the book is a reflection of family stories, memories and research about her grandfather,”a man who had survived a World War POW camp, Lenin, and a transatlantic crossing in steerage,” to come to Canada–”the land of dreams.” The family history settled on her and she “carried the spark of the idea for years, but I wasn’t sure whose story it was.” Later, with the work underway, she concludes, she discovered the strength of Maria, Theo’s wife.

Maria is a stalwart tough woman. She is the well-balanced core of her world, her family and their land. Contrastingly, her sister-in-law, Anne, is the turning gyre, the center that cannot hold. As one comes apart the other coalesces. Likewise the men, Theo and Stefan. As Theo digs in, literally and figuratively, Stefan flees the homestead, only to return, then flee again. There is no escaping the tension as these orbits collide. This world is deftly drawn and wonderfully applied. The families are patiently described and the characters painstakingly developed. As they are farmers, so is the story tendered, planted, watered and harvested. But, as I stated, it is the land these farmers toil over that plays central to the story. As Theo’s efforts are rewarded, so Anne and Stefan grow dependent upon his and Maria’s largesse. Ultimately, scheming and jealously prevail and Stefan orchestrates a ruse to enjoy all the fruits of Theo’s labors. But Theo is old school and not given to flexibility. This is the story of two families consumed by the land they struggle to possess. Mitchell noted in an interview that, “the landscape, for me, is a living breathing character.”

There was a school of writing a generation or two ago that admonished, Show, don’t tell. That less is more. And: Make it new, to channel Gertrude Stein. These writers were bare boned. They didn’t use adjectives and rarely hinted at what was going on in the heads of their characters. Then, later, came along a generation who, doing what upstarts do, threw out all that and gave us interior lives, thoughts and longings unspoken. They waxed and waned. And there there is the bauhaus school of thought, where form follows function. I thought a lot about all this reading While Under This Unbroken Sky. This is a stark and hard-edged novel. And the style reflects it. It reads in the best of all these traditions, but most it draws us a picture. It shows. The story is one of bare existence on the prairie and the form of the story conveys the starkness of that existence. The style is hard. You feel as if you’re walking through a field yet to be cleared of rock and boulder. For example, this passage, describing the family trying to flee a dust storm:

Maria slams the door shut. She gasps for air, her nose clogged, she coughs and spits up dirt. In her arms, Katya is quiet. She sets her on her feet, wipes the dirt from her eyes. Her thin, naked body is a mess of red splotches already turning purple.

Katya stands still, listening carefully, wondering if she has been taken to heaven or hell. “Katya.” The voice is soft. She opens her eyes. God looks like Mama.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 26 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (September 8, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Shandi Mitchell
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More farm stories:

A Season of Fire and Ice by Lloyd Zimbpel

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Another Ukranian Immigrant story:

The History of the Tractor in Ukranian by Marian Lewycka

More Canadian history:

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe


September 11, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Canada, Commonwealth Prize, Debut Novel, Family Matters, y Award Winning Author

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