Monday, September 6, 2010

Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell — 352 pgs


Book CoverIn 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.
Author Photo

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, August 24th:Til We Read Again
Monday, August 30th:The Lost Entwife
Tuesday, September 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, September 9th:Bibliofreak
Friday, September 10th:Reading at the Beach
Thursday, September 16th:Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, September 20th:Rundpinne
Tuesday, September 21st:Lisa’s Yarns
Friday, September 24th:Devourer of Books
Tuesday, September 28th:Fizzy Thoughts

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

12 comments:

softdrink said...

I read this last night, and agree...it's very dark, but in a good way.

bermudaonion said...

I know very little about Canadian history so their homesteading act is new to me too. This definitely sounds like it's worth reading.

Hannah Stoneham said...

I know so little about the history here but it sounds like this book is a good way to pick up the flavour -

Thanks for sharing

Hannah

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I do like the sound of this one heather. Adding it to my list; thanks for the great review.

Amy said...

Wow, I didn't know Canada offered that either, and this sounds like a truly wonderful book. Great review.

Suko said...

I don't recall much about homesteading acts in Canada, and it sounds like an informative and intriguing book. Excellent review, as usual.

Meghan said...

This sounds amazing. I do enjoy a dark book every now and then, especially one with fantastic character development and a setting I'm not familiar with. Thanks for this review - you've added another book to my wishlist! =)

nomadreader said...

This book sounds really fascinating. I don't know much about Canadian history at all, so I've added this one to my list.

heathertlc said...

This book is very high on my TBR list. It sounds like a very deep and moving (albeit depressing) read with a strong historical background. Thanks for the excellent review and for being a part of the tour.

Literary Feline said...

I read another review of this one not too long ago which caught my interest. It sounds like it touches on several different themes which are important--and I love your description of the book as dark but then mention its beauty. Thank you for such an insightful review, Heather.

Jules said...

I read this book about a year ago, but I didn't enjoy it as much as you did. I thought it portrayed an amazing outlook on immigration life in Canada during the times, and her writing style was beautiful, but something felt like it was "missing." I think it may have been the characters for me.

But after reading your review, I had to search in my memory, the comments you made about how the author used animals, was well put. I never really caught onto that, until you mentioned it. And you are right, especially about Anna. It makes me have a new outlook on the book. Great review!

melanie said...

For some reason I am drawn to bleak and dark books - I have this in one of the stacks and will plan to read it sooner. Thanks.

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