This book is tragic at so many levels, and yet it is a book I would wholeheartedly recommend. I found myself captivated by the character’s lives, and caring about the fates of all of them. A description of the plot may sound like there is an overwhelmingly depressing grimness in the lives of these people. Yet the efforts they make to find joy are like bright fireflies bringing light to the story.
In the spring of 1938, Theo Mykolayendo, a Ukrainian victim of Stalin’s starvation program, is freed after serving two years in Soviet prison for stealing his own grain. He joins his family in the untamed, bleak northern prairie of Alberta, Canada, where land that no one else wanted was set aside for poor immigrants. He and his wife Maria and their five children work hard to clear the land, plant it with wheat, and make a life for themselves. Occasionally they get help from Theo’s sister Anna and her two children, who live next door. But Anna seems unhinged, and the children are too young to be of much help. Periodically, Anna’s unremittingly evil husband Stefan comes back home from town to take money, food, and beat his wife and children before he returns to the brothels and bars.
Theo’s family fights prairie fire, broken tools, blisters, sickness, want, starvation, and then the weakness, sickness and greed of his sister’s family. Always there is more they need: new boots and warm coats; food for all; nails for a new barn; a granary to protect the grain from mice; a horse to pull the plow; shoes and food for the horse; and other seemingly endless necessities. Theo must also provide for Anna and her family. There is never enough. But scenes of washing and canning and cooking and eating and trips into town are lovingly portrayed with detail that is illuminating rather than tedious. The affection the author has for the characters is clear, and inspires the reader to share that sentiment.
The young children in the story have their own concerns too. In Theo’s family, Ivan, only five, competes – mostly unsuccessfully – with Anna’s boy Petro. Katya, seven, is plagued by superstition and fears. Sofia, eleven, wants to be a lady. Myron, thirteen, wants his father to respect him. Dania, fourteen, has to help run the household.
Anna’s son Petro, seven, is destined to become as cruel as his father. Lesya, ten, born with a deformed foot, keenly senses Anna’s rejection of her.
When the clash comes between the two families, it is as harsh as the landscape itself. Somehow, survivors of the turmoil summon the strength from within themselves to go on.
Evaluation: It’s interesting to learn the details of existence under such adverse circumstances; many pioneers endured similar or worse conditions, and you can only wonder at their perseverance. In an interview, the author said she was inspired by “[p]eople, life, injustice, small acts of compassion, small acts of heroism, flawed people who overcome, everyday people and the stories they carry, and people who surprise me with their artist heart[s].” This also could serve as an excellent description of this story. One of the protagonists, Stefan, is a bit too caricatured, but the rest are richly complex in interesting ways. And all play a role in the tragedies that befall them.
Published by George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2009