In the spring of 1938, Teodor Mykolayenko is released after a year in prison for stealing his own grain. Living on the Canadian prairie after fleeing from Ukraine, Teodor must begin to build up his land and fields to qualify for a homestead patent. During his year in prison, Teodor's wife and five children have been living in the storage shed of his sister Anna's homestead, frantically scraping by while waiting for him to return. As Teodore begins to adjust to life outside the prison's stone walls, he starts to transform the shared land by his cultivation of wheat and the building of his own homestead. But when Anna's dangerous drunkard husband Stephan returns after having abandoned his wife and children, he catches Teodore off guard. Stephan is not happy that Teodore's family is sharing the land with his family and wants to claim the hard work that Teodore has done for his own, thereby raising the chances that he can become a wealthy landowner. As Teodore and Stephan fight for what each believes to be their own, an explosive conflict is ignited that will destroy both families with its deadly consequences. Both dark and rich, like the land it describes, Under This Unbroken Sky tells the story of a pitched battle between two families in Depression-era Canada that are inextricably intertwined, and their struggles to disentangle their fates.
I had known a little about the homesteading acts in America, but had no idea that Canada also offered the same program to many immigrants during the Depression. Though it was an ostensibly generous program, some situations arose that could not be expected. What happens to Teodore and his family on those lonely Canadian prairies is one such story. Unable to make his yearly homesteading payment after his crops are destroyed, the Canadian government comes to strip his land. Teodore, feeling the weight of having to begin anew, hides a bushel of grain grown on his own farm for planting in his new location. When the authorities find this grain, Teodore is sent to prison for a year and it is upon his release that the story begins in earnest.
From the outset, it was impossible not to feel the gravity of this story. From Teodor's recollections of pacing a five foot prison cell to the descriptions of the bloated and hungry bellies of his children, there was no mistake that this was going to be a dark and sobering read. The family were pragmatists and never really expected much more from their lives than what they had, but in Teodore was the hope that he just might be able to provide for his wife and children in a more concrete way. Teodore was also caring for Anna and her brood while the evil Stephan was out carousing and drinking, but Anna lived under the shadow of a deep-seated mental illness that kept her debilitated for most of the story, leaving her children to be raised by Teodore and his wife. As Stephan reenters the picture, Anna begins to grow desperate and the problems between the two families take on a frightening pall of uncertainty and fear.
One of the things that stuck me the most was the toll that this type of living took on the children. Where they once lived life in relative obliviousness, as the book progresses you can see them changing into the scared and haunted people they will become. Often they blame themselves for the fate of their father or the tragedies that happen out on the prairie. They are plagued with nightmares, riddled with misplaced guilt, and at times feel like they have to step into adult shoes to quell the problems at hand. They don't understand what is happening to their family, and blame shifts among them like a shadow, creeping to each in turn. These children have adult cares and fears and they wear the weight of their burdens uncomfortably, like a yoke. These effects were highlighted expertly by the author's ability to shift the point of view in the narrative, giving each adult and child their say. The changes in perspective were done seamlessly, and because each character had a distinctive voice, it felt unbelievably smooth.
The sections of the book that dealt with the animals were some of the most moving and artistic sections, in my opinion. Whether they were the husbandry animals, the wild animals on the prairie or just the companion animals, the author uses them to great effect. There is the pack of wolves on the hill that comes to symbolize Anna's madness and despair; the horse that symbolizes Teodore's steadfastness and honor; and the little chick that symbolizes the brokenness and strength of one of the young girls. All these animals and the things they represent took on various forms in the story, and instead of relegating them to the annals of anecdote, the author uses them to affect change and growth among the characters. Most of these animals come to violent ends, which in a way foreshadows the people they are tied to, and the inexpressible beauty of their impacts on the lives around them is something that left me feeling hopeful, even when all hope was lost.
This book dealt with the some of the darker themes of literature, such as jealously, revenge and domination. It wasn't a happy read but it was one that made me consider the fact that there are real people like Stephan and Teodore, locked in an eternal struggle with each other. It was a painful story and one that didn't pull up short with a falsely fabricated ending. These were bitter times and bitter people, and their scruples were not enough to save them from the sad fates that awaited them. There was almost no humor in this book and everything was tinged with a grayness of emotion. In this family's schism, there was no room for forgiveness or healing, and as things ran their course, it became clear to me that the struggle for dominance would be futile, for they would all eventually destroy one another.
Though this was a very dark read, I found it had an undeniable beauty to it. Both in the story it tells and the language that it uses, the book starts off strong and remains piercing to its final pages. It was a more literary read than most of the historical fiction I have read of late, and I think it has a lot to say about isolation and the things that poverty and hopelessness can drive you towards. I would recommend it to those who are looking to go in a direction that is less trodden in historical fiction and would have to say that the character growth alone, particularly amongst the children, is something that makes this a book worth watching out for. If you are easily disturbed, this book might not be for you, but those who can appreciate the nuances of a dark story would probably find it a fulfilling read.
|About The Author
Shandi Mitchell is an award-winning Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter. Her short films have screened at numerous international festivals and she is a recipient of a Canada Council for the Arts endowment. Mitchell spent her childhood on a military base on the prairies and now makes her home in Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada, with her husband, Alan, and their dog, Annie. Under This Unbroken Sky is her first novel.
Visit Shandi at her website, www.shandimitchell.com.
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This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.