- Murder, Mayhem, and Melodrama:Mining for Material in a Painful Pioneer Past
When the propagation of Canadian multiculturalism first took off in the 1970s, most Canadians of Ukrainian descent appeared reluctant to look at the casually cruel treatment often experienced by their pioneering forebears. While the public celebrated various Ukrainian customs that had entered the mainstream of Canadian culture, few writers tackled the hard truths that had led to those celebrations. Some Anglo-Canadian writers (most notably Sinclair Ross in As For Me and My House and Margaret Laurence in A Jest of God) had alluded to the scorn with which these “bohunks” were held, but only George Ryga, starting in the 1960s, wrote frankly and at length about the prejudice and hardships Ukrainian immigrants encountered after settling on the prairies. Now, several decades later, writers have begun to unearth some of the uglier aspects of the Ukrainian Canadians’ entry into Canadian life, and the two novels discussed here hang their plots on the scaffold of this unhappy history.
Barbara Sapergia begins her wide-ranging saga before World War One and ends it in 1960, providing a panoramic view of the experiences of two families and a number of their friends, both in Ukraine and across the Canadian West. Shandi Mitchell takes the opposite approach, with the main action taking place in one setting during one fateful year, 1938. Here, the focus is entirely on a single family: a brother and sister, their spouses and children. The differences in space and time highlight a sharp difference in tone, with the latter novel emitting an atmosphere of harsh and unrelieved intensity and the former, a more equable discursiveness as it meanders through the years. [End Page 339]
In Under This Unbroken Sky, Mitchell forecasts her plot on the first page, describing a photograph taken in 1933 of an unnamed family: husband, wife, three girls, one boy, and a baby (presumably their children) in front of a farmhouse. Telegraphing their dire poverty, she notes that, although dressed in summer clothes, the four older ones are standing in four inches of snow. “Within three years this farm will be foreclosed. Two years later, one will die. Two others, of whom there is no photograph, will be murdered” (3). The statement deftly pulls the reader into a story primarily about betrayal, whether by one’s own character flaws, by one’s family, by the elements, by an established group that sees the immigrants as “not quite white,” or by a set of bureaucratic procedures that adhere strictly to the letter of the law, however unjust the outcome.
The novel is written in the unrelenting naturalist mode of Emile Zola, particularly Germinal, his novel about French miners who spiral ever downward no matter how hard they try to claw their way towards a place of dignity and reward. Like them, Theodor Mikolayenko strives to create a decent life for his family, only to be thwarted time and again by prejudice, by greed, by weather, by the incomprehensible bureaucracy that gives him land twice, only to take it away both times. Taking place in the harsh 1930s, the story of the Mikolayenko family represents the second wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada, specifically those escaping the Stalinistinduced starvation in Soviet-controlled eastern Ukraine.
The awful irony, of course, is that they come to the Prairies only to experience similar conditions. Each time they manage to emerge from a particular calamity, they are felled by another, until they arrive at the very tragic denouement when all seems lost. In this final section, however, one does see a glimmer of hope as Maria Mikolayenko gathers her brood one more time to light out for yet further territory, carrying a hidden packet of seeds to sow in yet another new parcel of land. As a symbol of rebirth, the seed again recalls the main theme of Germinal: as in that earlier novel, one senses that the destruction of these people...