I have a sneaking suspicion that Victoria Glendinning read Shandi Mitchell's Under This Unbroken Sky as one of the 100 works of Canadian fiction she was commissioned to examine for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It is entirely possible that Mitchell's bleak and somewhat heavy-handed novel prompted Glendinning's nasty comment about "the muddy middle range of novels .. with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny's youth in the Ukraine."
Unfair? Absolutely. And dismissive, too, but the unsophisticated reader of Canadian literature might indeed respond to a novel like Under This Unbroken Sky in this way. It is a story of Ukrainian immigrants told with multiple points of view, and using flashbacks to amplify the back story of the characters. But the knowledgeable reader, one who understands Canadian context, will regard this book differently and read it with rapt attention.
This is a tale about a family whose members are utterly subjugated: by their history, their immigration, their poverty and their dreams. The Mykolayenkos have somehow managed to escape Stalinist Ukraine and through a combination of luck and dogged determination have made their way to Alberta in the 1930s. Among the many immigrants in "sheepskin coats" who were to provide agricultural muscle in the West, they rented a piece of land and waited for a homestead entry, eager to build themselves a home and a future.
The Mykolayenkos embody the clash that occurred so often between British law and authority and the expectations of those who came from other cultures. After working for two years, the father, Teodore, has been arrested and detained for stealing his own grain, having unknowingly signed a contract that entitled his landlords to everything he produced. After a year in prison, he returns to his family, and tries to begin again.
Because he now has a prison record, Teodore is unable to file for a homestead, but his sister, Anna, has filed on his behalf. The work of proving up (the summary of improvements that must be made to complete a Homesteader's Agreement) is unrelenting: They must break and plant 25 acres with a horse-drawn plow, build a house and outbuildings, dig a well and erect fences. Somehow, with no money and no other resources, scrabbling in the hard soil, this family must survive.
The pressures that accompany this imperative are inevitable. Homesteading was a harsh school. While the land itself was rich enough, the weather and other natural hazards could bring disaster quickly. Insects and rodents, fire and flood, served relentless notice, as if every one of Job's trials were transported to this new place.
Under This Unbroken Sky tells that quintessentially Canadian story. It is the story of thousands of immigrants who came to Canada with nothing in their luggage but hope, and no resources but willpower and brute strength. Used by a government seeking to occupy the West, treated with contempt by anglo settlers who had access to money and better lands, and isolated from their own religion and family, it is only surprising that more did not go utterly mad.
This novel weaves that tapestry with a determined rather than a skillful hand. The situation is recognizable and the genealogy of the settler novel in Canada well-established: Frederick Philip Grove, Laura Goodman Salverson and Martha Ostenso all wrote novels that deal with the same subject. Time has now relegated the courage and the challenges of settlers to a hazy historical era, and there is a desire to pretend that agricultural settlement is merely part of a quaint and thus dismissible past.
But the story of displacement and migration, of hunger and adversity and homesickness, of failure as much as obdurate resilience, is one that can be told many times and in many different ways. It is a foundational myth that bears repeating, one that deserves the attention of the world. It is a terrible story and a triumphal story.
That mixture of terror and celebration rests at the heart of Under This Unbroken Sky. Still, while the subject is great, there is indeed an awkwardness to this novel that is resonant in the almost redundant title. It's a title that projects the story's negative force, and yet does not quite manage its own prepositional domination.
Clumsiness is perhaps inherent in the situation and the characters. These are not graceful and articulate protagonists who boast refinement and savoir faire. These are earthy folk whose apprehension of the world is elemental, immediate. Their pleasures are few and their adversities many, so it is little wonder that the adults seem both stoic and one-dimensional. By contrast, the children are wonderfully evoked, from their innocent collections to their dreams of the future and their resolute donning of adult responsibilities.
The ultimate enemy, the one that pushes them past endurance, is human madness. Teodore's sister and her husband have not adapted well to their new circumstances. Although Teodore and his wife, Maria, do all they can to help his sister and her good-for-nothing husband, the two families are riven by tension. Inevitably, a conflict about who actually has the right to occupy the homestead arises. Out of that comes a cataclysmic finale, even more horrific than Stalinist occupation.
This novel is stylistically odd, almost halting in its cadence. The immediate present tense does not sit well with the action and the characters. The flashbacks are uneasy, too: Clearly, they are included to provide information. But Mitchell, who is a filmmaker and screenwriter, thinks visually more than narratively, and there are breathtaking moments where the overwhelming beauty of the image transports the writing to a different horizon.
Those moments make this novel much more than a Canadian cliché, but an important stone in the mosaic of our shared Canadian conundrum. This nation, so richly complex, so lucky in its diversity, has been built on the blood of people who did indeed suffer and sacrifice. We owe that story our best attention.
Aritha van Herk lives and writes in Calgary.