Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mitchell's Under this Unbroken Sky

Toronto: Penguin, c2009.
354 p.

This is the second Canadian Book Challenge choice I finished last weekend. It's about Ukrainian immigrants in Canada, set in the 1930's - both elements which appeal to me. Also, this is possibly The Book that spurred Victoria Glendinning's recent sniffy complaint about the boring tendency of Canadian fiction to focus on the past and forebears such as "Granny who spent her youth in Ukraine".

I loved the fact that this story was completely about a Ukrainian family in Alberta and their trials in the promised freedom of a new country. Teodor Mykolayenko, his wife Maria and their five children come to Canada, alongside Theo's sister Anna, her two children, and her nasty husband Stefan, a former army officer who is not adjusting well to becoming a nobody, a Bohunk on a hardscrabble homestead. Taking Theo, a character who had already suffered greatly in WWI and under Stalin, then drawing a portrait of the not much improved life of the family in the so-called land of plenty was illuminating. Their problems arise from climate (this is the Dirty Thirties), from miscommunication, from racism among Canadians of English backgrounds, and from the horrors they bring within themselves. The role of Ukrainians in agricultural settlement of the Canadian West was huge; even today the present day Ukrainian population of Canada is the third largest in the world, after Ukraine and Russia. This novel delineates the true difficulties that these homesteaders faced, and the relentless hard physical work it was to clear land and produce enough to feed and keep one's family. It also reveals the isolation that could result when a family left their homeland knowing they would never return, forced to rely on one another even when those relationships were not always friendly. Theo ends up caring for his own family and for Anna's, Stefan only reappearing when all the hard work is done and he wants to claim the spoils.

Unfortunately, I found this novel to be a bit narratively unsettling. I don't like the historical present tense very much in any case, but here especially I felt it didn't sit quite right with the story. Also, it is clear that the author is a filmmaker: she describes the action of the story in a series of images -- beautifully evoked, but the timeline was a little hard to follow as imagistic set pieces trumped straightforward narrative progression. It's not that I expect "this happened, then this, then this"; but a little causality and character development would have helped me to really believe the shocking conclusion. I was confused by the dates given in the preface and through the story, not being quite able to place all the events in sequence.

Also, it was really bleak. I know that the lives of settlers were very hard; poverty, drought, isolation, hunger all abounded, but surely there were a few good times as well. Every single awful thing that happened to Ukrainian settlers didn't have to be experienced by this hard luck family! The grimness of the book doesn't really lighten up; all the children are fairly miserable, obsessing over the few things they do possess -- a heart shaped stone, a chicken, a ball of dough representing Christ. Even when they are playing they are somehow subdued and afraid. The adults are necessarily stoic in the face of all this misery, Theo and Maria especially, while Anna goes a bit mad and her husband Stefan is a caricature of a drunken, self important bully. His final disappearance is questionably set up - would he really behave in such a manner? And I felt the same at the climax of the story - I was taken aback by the action; Theo's character throughout didn't seem to suggest that he would finally act as he did.

However, this is a B&N book club choice in the States, and seems to have been received very well. Many people with a lot more literary cred than I have love this book. It may feel very new and unexpected to people with no knowledge of Ukrainian settlement of Western Canada, in particular, and if it does enlighten people as to the presence of Ukrainians whose hard work settlement depended upon then I am very glad.

It was a thought provoking read about characters that overall I was quite interested in. Mitchell included a few interesting non-narrative additions such as a couple of recipes, and a description of period photos (not the photos themselves). There were some nicely drawn elements even if as a whole I found it just okay. But I really would have appreciated a few more sunbeams breaking through the lowering clouds of this unbroken sky.

Here is Shandi Mitchell talking about her book:

A few other opinions:


  1. Your review is terrific, and I've read several reviews about this book, but I'm not sure it would be right for me?? thanks for sharing; honest reviews are so helpful

  2. I agree with Diane--I love your honest take on this. Sounds very interesting on one hand, but the bleakness is off-putting for me.

  3. This caught my attention because I just finished reading an autobiography by a man whose grandparents were immigrants from Scotland who settled on homesteads in northern Canada. They went through a lot of hardships too, but not quite as gloomy as this book sounds. I really liked seeing the photos in the video clip you shared.

  4. I had no idea there were so many Ukranian settlers in Canada. The book sounds interesting, but a bit too gloomy for me.

  5. This looks interesting. I will have to keep it in mind!

  6. I'm interested in reading this one for the Canadian Challenge.

    Thanks for the review.

  7. I've read a more favourable review for this one elsewhere; though you seem to have mixed feelings about the book, I still think it's one I'd like to read eventually.

  8. Diane - I really wanted to love this one so maybe that's why I was a little disappointed.

    SmallWorldatHome - yes, it was very despairing. Of course, their lives then weren't very luxurious or easy but perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for more dark, depressing storytelling.

    Jeane - I like books about settlers, that is so much a part of the Canadian past & our literature. I have a few more that I'm reading now.

    softdrink - yes, tons of Ukrainians! (my grandparents & greats included) This was an interesting book but I felt so gloomy while I was reading it!

    Kailana - absolutely interesting for any Canadian I think. Lots to say about the social conditions of that time in our past, and some good characters.

    3m.michelle - I hope you will read it for the Challenge! I'd love to see your take on it. It is VERY Canadian and for that reason I am glad I read it.

    Wanda - I know, I am not sure why it didn't resonate with me like it did with other readers & reviewers. I really wanted it to. The subject matter is pretty dear to me - maybe my expectations didn't let me experience it as completely fresh & unknown.


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