23 August 2009

Under This Unbroken Sky

BNBC's August First Look Book Club has been reading Shandi Mitchell's debut novel Under This Unbroken Sky. Set in 1938 rural Alberta, Canada, the novel examines one year in the life of a Ukranian immigrant family struggling to make a home for themselves, breaking the land to suit their will. There are moments of levity, happiness, and joy but also madness and tragedy.

The novel is overshadowed by an opening preface, one that describes a photograph dated 1933 (there wasn't an actual photograph my ARC so I'm not sure whether there will be a photograph in the actual book); as readers, we are told that within five years of this photograph this farm will not exist and three members of this family will die. Mitchell's novel describes the road to tragedy beginning with the day Teodor returns to his family after serving two years in prison for theft, the "theft" being the crime of keeping one wagonload of grain for himself instead of letting the entire crop be repossessed and his family starve. Teodor's wife Maria has kept their five children alive, staying in a shack on her sister-in-law's property. Anna has trouble of her own in the form of her drunken, egomaniacal husband, Stefan; Anna's psyche is close to breaking.

Reading Mitchell's novel is a little like reading My Antonia on the other side of the mirror, a The Long Winter that reveals the devastating truth of prairie life. We are not looking in on the Shimerdas, we are behind the scenes with them, building houses, negotiating sale prices (with poor English), rationing food to last the winter, saving crops from natural disasters. We are not warmed by Pa's fiddle but listen to Maria's stories from their homeland now torn by Stalinist directives. It is easy to forget the setting is only 80 years in the past because there is no electricity, all the farmwork is done by hand.

The novel highlights the difficulties of the immigrant. The locals take advantage of the immigrants' naivete and poor English skills. Come to our country! You can own land if you work hard! What they really mean is that once you have the land broken some loop-hole will appear allowing your homesteading claim to be revoked. The grocer will try to cheat you when buying the vegetables you have slaved over. It's an odd form of indentured servitude. I felt a twinge of relief or guilt that the book was set in Canada, like the sins of the US during the western expansion are not ours alone in the history of the Western hemisphere.

With so many characters in close quarters with one another Mitchell really should be proud of her ability to give each of her characters a unique voice. Maria quickly became my favorite character. She is practical and endlessly resourceful, the ideal character for a novel centered on the hard life of a settler. The knowledge of cooking, farming, home-remedies, sewing, etc. packed into her head could fill several instruction books. She is an admirable character and a stark contrast to her sister-in-law, Anna, who is nearly incapacitated through self-loathing and hatred for her husband.

I would love to see how Teodor and Maria's children turn out, if Sofia succeeds in shedding her Ukranian roots, Myron becomes the land-owning farmer his father intended, or if Dania creates as solid a home as Maria had, but Under This Unbroken Sky is a book that shouldn't have a sequel.

Current books-in-progress: Frankenstein, Foucault's Pendulum, and Hush, Hush
Current knitted item: 16-button cardie
Current movie obsession: Gosford Park and Robin Hood (Most Wanted Edition)
Current iTunes loop: Filmspotting episode #65 "Munich" (12/30/05)

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