Bohunk Road / Hope Morritt
Sarnia: River City Press, c1987.
I found this book in a 2nd hand store and had to pick it up because of its Ukrainian content. I found it both interesting and disturbing.
First of all, the title itself is a little off-putting, even though it refers to the road on the edges of Edmonton that the main characters live on, and its common name among the city's inhabitants. "Bohunk" is quite a rude slur, in reference to Ukrainians, so it makes sense that in the 40s & 50s in which this story is set that it would still be in use. But it's still hard to read.
And a lot of this story is hard: main character Natalka is the second daughter of the Wisnowski family, and she is determined to shake off the trappings of her ethnicity. Her ideal is to leave her family's embarrassing tar paper shack and all their traditions, and marry an American soldier and become a perfect 50s wife. This seems possible as there are numerous soldiers stationed in Edmonton, building the Alaska-Canada Highway for US wartime defense purposes. I had no idea about this event so was surprised and interested to learn that loads of Americans in Alberta at this time was indeed an historical fact.
After many struggles (some quite harrowing -- the attempted murder of her new boyfriend by assailants unknown though suspected, an attempted rape by a creepy neighbour, to name a couple) she succeeds in her goal. And begins to wonder if she perhaps hadn't married a little too soon; her dream of marriage takes her to the North (to Whitehorse), and gives her two children quickly, but also takes away her university prospects forever.
The part of this short book which deals with her dissatisfaction and longing to escape home is quite elaborate and rich; once she's married the story skims ahead quickly and episodically over a number of years, until the finale, in which she returns home and realizes the value of family and identity after all.
There are moments of loveliness in the first part of the book, notably a chapter focusing on a Christmas celebration. But there is much grittiness and misery, and frank language and discussion of rough experiences. The feeling of 'overcoming' one's ethnic upbringing to become a real North American success story reminds me quite a bit of elements of Vera Lysenko's Yellow Boots. There is also the same sense of dislocation in both books with the main character being away from home for only a decade at most, and when they finally go back, it has all changed dramatically.
Despite the reservations I had about this book's literary merits, and some of the things I found disturbing (particularly the attempted rape scene), it was an illuminating read. I thought the way in which Morritt juxtaposed Natalka, her mother Martha, and her frail grandmother Anastasia highlighted the changes that overtake a family over a generation. This is another book that really focuses on women and their experiences, and creates a wide range of women who are all very different and individual in their character and behaviour. I felt that this story speaks of a Ukrainian experience in a way I haven't read a lot, honestly expressing the urge of some younger people to leave their heritage behind in an era where it wasn't a benefit.