Book of The Day ~ Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Hello members of Bookwomen and anyone else who stumbles upon this review.
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.”
Dwight David Eisenhower
I really enjoy stories where the characters grow and evolve, so I was excited to receive a new book from Harper and the First Look Program at Barnes and Noble to read and review that is just that. Shandi Mitchell is a Canadian author who is primarily a film maker, but the germ of a story about her ancestors kept niggling at her until she took that kernel of truth, planted it and grew an entire wheat field in the northern Canadian prairie. And let the farmer lose it because he didn’t fulfill the terms of his homestead contract quickly enough. And let it be reborn when he got out of prison for trying to take back his confiscated crops. And then let it burn. Then let a wind storm sweep it away. All the while Teodor and his immigrant family stand up to all that the land could throw at them. “Under This Unbroken Sky” is a tender love story, a tragic family story and a lesson in contrasts.
Two Ukrainian families are enticed by the Canadian government to leave the political turmoil behind come and homestead in the late 1930’s. They begin the back breaking task of clearing and planting. Teodor unfortunately misses a crucial (though arbitrarily set) payment deadline and his land and crops are summarily seized without any compassion by the local authorities. When he attempts to reclaim his property he is thrown into prison for nearly two years. While he is gone, his wife and children survive by sleeping in Teodor’s sister’s shed and helping on their land. He returns home where he and his family throw themselves into the labor of starting over on another homestead tract his sister bought for him since he cannot because he has been in convicted of a crime. The next year is spent toiling not only for themselves, but also for Anna and her children since her husband has abandoned them now that Anna is ugly with pregnancy. They continue to battle Mother Nature during this time while an undercurrent of ill will sweeps over them when Anna’s good for nothing husband returns and seeks to claim their land and evict them.
The characters are what really drive this story and while the adults figure prominently, the study in contrasts begins with the children. Teodor and Maria’s five children seem quite well-adjusted considering all that they have been through. They each have a distinct personality and are a joy to watch. Anna and Stefan’s children are not so lucky. Stefan is very abusive in various ways to each member of his family. His daughter, Lesya has a crippled foot which Stefan blames on Anna. Both Anna and Lesya cringe under his abuse and his young son Petro seeing this, understands that abuse can be powerful so he abuses everyone and everything that comes in his path as he seeks to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Under This Unbroken Sky” is set in the northern prairies of Canada where Mother Nature is a cruel mistress. The winter is long with the farmers having little ability to grow anything to help them through this time. They are often cut off from the town by the snows. The spring is short and the summer flies by with warm days that can make or break the harvest. Autumn is filled with hard work bringing in crops, preparing for the next year and trying to make a pittance from the sale of crops to a mill with little tolerance for the immigrants and their lack of speaking in English.
What I Liked
I felt a great compassion for these hardworking people and their plight: not fitting in with their Canadian neighbors at school, church or in the market. People often tried to take advantage of them and it seemed that they had to work twice as hard to get half as much.
What I Didn’t Like
I was often furious with Stefan with his meanness as well as Anna who has stepped out of reality and let others do for her. She has lost her ability to dream and is overwhelmed by everyday circumstances. She neglects her children in ways that are as tragic as her husband’s abuse.
“Under This Unbroken Sky” is a brilliant story with a tragic ending. Even as I approached the precipice, I couldn’t stop reading. Mitchell gives insight into the history, the family dynamics and the inner workings (slow though they may be) of the government in ways that made me both love and deplore all that grew from her germ of an idea.
2009 © Susan K Barton
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• ISBN: 0061774022
• ISBN-13: 9780061774027
• Format: Hardcover, 352pp
• Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
• Pub. Date: September 08, 2009