Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
HarperCollins, New York, 2009
Borrowed from my local library. This is my first book for the 5th Canadian Book Challenge. I first read about this book over at Fizzy Thoughts.
This is a family saga. A story of Ukrainian farmers who, under Joseph Stalin’ s agricultural policies, lose their home and their land. They leave their country and travel to the plains of Alberta, Canada. The Canadian government offered land, cheap, for those who homestead. For Teodor, Maria and their children this is a way to rebuild their lives.
The novel opens with Teodor returning from prison. His family has managed to survive by living in a shed on his sister Anna’s land.
Teodor remains seated. They face one another, waiting. Him inside the room, them frozen in the doorway. It is Ivan who takes the first step forward. This small five-year-old boy, with his tousle of sun-bleached hair, missing tooth, chewed fingernails, walks up to his father and stands bravely before him. He takes the man’s face in his hands and brings it close to his own. He stands on tiptoe and squints as he stares into his father’s eyes. He looks past the bloodshot white, past the blue and gray flecks, and looks directly into the black center.
“It’s him,” he decrees and throws his arms around his father’s neck as he climbs onto his lap and babbles about Petro, and the frog they found, and the cat that died, and the ice storm last year, and going to town, and Mama buying toffee, and still having some in his pocket, and his pants being too short, and the nail he stepped on, and the bird that got in the house, and can they get another dog…until Maria tells him hush. From page 27.
This is a wonderful scene and there are many in this novel. Teodor is determined to clear land, farm wheat and build a house for his family but government corruption, pride and jealousy stand in his way.
Land up in these parts was untamed, choked by bush, rocks, and bogs. The flat rich land further south went to the British and the gentrified. This part of the country was allocated for Ukrainians, Germans, Russians, Hungarians and shared with the decimated Blackfoot, who had been pushed further and further north by train tracks, towns, and fences. This was land set aside for laborers, non-whites, peasants with deep guttural language and mysterious customs. It was a place for poor people, but the soil was rich. From page 52.
Under This Unbroken Sky is beautifully written, a tragedy that keeps showing glimmers of strength and hope. What I liked most was Mitchell’s presentation of her characters. From Teodor, Maria, and Anna to the many children, each character has a clear and distinct voice. Some are likable, some are not. I connected most with the children. They suffer under the adults’ bad fortune and yet the future lies with them. This is a well-researched, well-written historical novel.