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Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell

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Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell

Under the Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell is one of the best books I have read in a very long time - a book that will keep you wanting to read into the night and to be back at it as soon as possible the next day. Set on the Alberta prairie in the late 1930’s this novel is as intense and devastating as The Kite Runner, but the hand of a more confident, sure and lyrical writer makes it shine. I finished it on a winter’s day very recently – glad that I knew nothing about the tragic climax before I got there – and glad that I didn’t finish it at night. I’d already been kept awake a few night earlier worrying about the plight of children in this novel.

So, I am not going to reveal the conclusion – except to say that at the age of 18 Shandi Mitchell was given a glass of whiskey by her father, and told that her grandfather had not died of flu – she was considered old enough to know the tragic truth. The story stayed with her for 15 years as she made a career as a successful filmmaker - until she felt that she had the maturity and life experience to write a novel based on the facts of her grandfather’s life and death.

We meet Teodor in 1938, he is returning home after spending a year in prison over a land claim issue. He is returning to his wife, Maria, and his children Myron, Sofia, Dania, Katya and Ivan. They have been living with Teodor’s sister, Anna and her children, Petro and Lesya, while Teodor has been away. Anna’s husband, Stefan, has also been away, working and carousing in a nearby town. This is the cast of characters.

They have fled the turmoil of the Ukraine. They live in isolation on the prairie, trying to make a life in the new land, in spite of the tremendous work involved in clearing the land. Maria is resourceful and she manages on so little to feed and cloth her children. Teodor, during the year following his return, manages to build a house for his family. They are making progress. There is a Jewish expression “kine-ahora” which means something like “may you be spared the evil eye” – and I thought of this as I read about the good times that seemed to be in the future for this family, knowing somehow that it was all too good to last.

First there is a fire, and they survive. Then there is a dust storm, and they survive. Through spring and summer and fall and a harvest they survive. Life is hard, hard, hard but they survive. The first snowfall on the prairies is a spectacular sight. It can be in early October – and for anyone who has lived on the prairies you know how brutally cold it will be in the months ahead.

Teodor’s sister Anna and her children Petro and Lesya are not thriving. Stefan has also returned but he is not the same sort of man as Teodor. He does not work the land – he relies on his brother in law and his children to do the work. He drinks, curses his bad luck, and is a brutal husband and father. I was kept awake by my distress about the plight of children living in these conditions – not enough food and warmth – and not anywhere near enough love and security.

And it is in the plight of the women and children that I see a comparison to the novels The Kite Runner and to The Song of Kahunsha. Those books are set in lands that make us as Canadians feel fortunate to live here – yet Under This Unbroken Sky is our own country not so many years ago. And, of course, I do know that there are children living just such desperate lives in this country, even today. In the past year I have found that readers were looking for “feel good” stories, not books of tragedy. But, it is often the books of tragedy that are the novels that stand out and give the reader such as satisfying sense of having read something wonderful and, in the end, life affirming.

Maria is a strong woman – pragmatic and optimistic, but not unrealistic. She watches her family like a hawk – her husband included. It is Maria who will be the saviour, and survivor after this novel ends.

In an interview Shandi Mitchell said “One of Hemingway’s characters in A Farewell To Arms says in an oft-cited quote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” For some I think this is true. But the quote continues, “But those that it will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of those you can be sure that it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry." 

I think the sky remains unbroken in my story. I believe humankind has an astounding capacity to survive, endure and even heal. We find reasons to keep on living and loving, and this is the mystery and, perhaps, salvation of the human experience.”

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