The Children of Mary / Marusya Bociurkiw
Toronto: Inanna, c2006.
I had heard of this author but hadn't read her when I found this book on the shelves of a second hand bookstore. It's a lovely object in itself; nice cover and weight and so on, and it was a book I wanted to read especially because of the Ukrainian elements. I was richly rewarded there.
It is the tale of three generations of Ukrainian women, centred around Winnipeg, with the heart of the story set in the 70's. Two sisters, Sonya and Kat, are growing up in a Ukrainian neighbourhood but are absolutely Canadian, focused on Abba and popular culture. Their grandmother Maria and mother Tatyana have both had terrible marriages, with men who are absent either relationally or in actuality. The story is most definitely one focused on women, with Kat and Sonya both eventually realizing that their sexual preference is lesbian. Though this story at first sounds like a typical multigenerational immigration narrative, it is in truth anything but. It is creative and complex, with multiple layers of meaning, and varied themes to be drawn out.
As the book begins, Kat and Sonya, bored and at loose ends, end up joining the Children of Mary, a church group for Ukrainian and Polish Catholic girls; the religious element exacerbates Kat's issues and she ends up creating stigmata in Sonya's hands and feet. After this display she is sent to spend the summer with her distant father, and Sonya is sent off to stay with her Baba, who lives in the country and spends her time making up herbal concoctions and warning Sonya to stay away from the river and the rusalky, the river spirits. It is after this summer that Kat changes, and grows up past Sonya's ability to keep up with her older sister. Kat gets into the hippie scene of the 70's, with drugs and sex taking over her life; she eventually runs away from home, and after some time, is found dead from a car accident. This trauma affects the family deeply, with both the embarrassment of Kat's behaviour and the unresolved grief of her death overshadowing Sonya and Tatyana in the years to come. This novel explores how such unresolved trauma can flow through the future and wear away a person, shaping their life, much as water can wear a path through the landscape by its sheer constancy.
The Rusalky, and indeed rivers in general, are a central theme in the book. Perhaps rivers reference the fluidity of memory, the sense of being drowned in our family and its dysfunction, or the tenacity exhibited by flooding or by remaining flowing underground long after they've been paved over by civilization. The Rusalky themselves are a strong symbol of the feminine element of water and of the belonging Sonya is searching for, both within her Ukrainian community and within her more personal lesbian community.
The narration shifts between first person accounts by Sonya and Maria, with brief dream narratives by Tatyana slipped in here and there. I admired Maria for her strength and her knowledge, while finding Sonya a very tough survivor, trying to make her way in the world while remaining true to herself. It is Tatyana that I feel the most sympathy for, however, as she is the in-between generation, not really Ukrainian but not as Canadian as her daughters either. She is also weighed down by a useless ex-husband whose absence is a major theme of Sonya and Kat's childhood.
A large part of Sonya's self growth takes place after she moves to Toronto and redefines herself according to her individuality and sexuality. She experiences the lesbian scene, meets Zoe who becomes her partner of 14 years, and yet has commitment issues that result in many affairs. There is a great deal of frank and mature subject content in these chapters, so if that makes you uncomfortable this may not be the book for you.
The writing in this novel is beautiful; powerful and flowing with the strength of the Red River itself. Each setting, whether Winnipeg's North End or Toronto's lesbian community (from the 70's to the 90's), is evoked with precision yet with a sense of gentle mockery. The tone never becomes maudlin or heavily nostalgic, rather Bociurkiw is able to draw out the ironies and amusing inconsistencies that people display everywhere, no matter how different they think they are. People are portrayed as complex and valued whether or not their actions are either incomprehensible or amusing. Judgement has no place in this book, rather, the characters seek understanding. It is a book that deals with sexuality, gender, class, nationality, and identity, and provides multiple routes to discuss these topics. It was a challenging read, but had many rewarding moments.
Personally, I found the Ukrainian elements of most interest, appreciating how she could express the different generations so convincingly, revealing the shifting nature of national identity. And I must mention her ability to use food as a convincing metaphor and a major element of the narrative. Really, there are many other things I could talk about in this book, but I would just recommend reading it to experience a full immersion in the watery world of the Children of Mary.