Review of “Under This Unbroken Sky” by Shandi Mitchell

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.

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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.

Rating: 4/5

Published by George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2009

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16 Responses to Review of “Under This Unbroken Sky” by Shandi Mitchell

  1. I finished the book two days ago and could not read another novel for a full day. It truly impacted both my brain and my emotions. It’s going to take me a while before I can write a review.

    Your review, on the other hand, is excellent. You conveyed the sense of grimness that overshadows the story. I have an even stronger appreciation for my pioneering ancestors.

  2. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, after your review and Margot’s comment, I’m adding this to my wish list. I love books that have an impact on me that way.

  3. Bumbles says:

    “the efforts they make to find joy are like bright fireflies bringing light to the story” – what a lovely way to put it. Sounds like you deserve to read a fun, happy book now – but thank you for encouraging people to read books that don’t always have happy endings. So many shy away from “sad” or “depressing” books/topics, but I find those are the ones that move me to make changes and appreciate what I have.

  4. Sandra says:

    Great review. Sounds like a story I’d enjoy. Thanks for reviewing it.

  5. Cathy says:

    I enjoyed your review. It was a sad, tragic story and those glimpses of joy were few and far between. I enjoyed the book also – will do my review after the B&N club finishes its’ discussion and I review two others I have sitting here.

  6. diane says:

    Great review. I have to read depressing books in moderation. I like them but some times they do me in.

  7. nfmgirl says:

    Excellent review! I really enjoyed it! Yes, this book really touched me. It is probably my favorite book yet, since I started reading again a few months ago.

  8. Staci says:

    Love your thoughts on this one. I’m definitely going to read this book!!

  9. Wisteria says:

    Excellent review Rhapsody and you captured the essence of the book really well. Although grim at times, there is so much beauty in the story as well. The pioneer spirit and adventure is something special in and of itself. I know we just realized we both read this for B & N and I like you thought this book was really special.

    I also reviewed this a few weeks ago on Bookworms Dinner if anyone wants to check it out.
    I highly recommend this book…its a stunning read.

  10. Oh, I had a chance to get this and passed because it sounded so sad. Now I’m smacking myself upside the head!

  11. Pam says:

    This sounds beautiful but heavy. As usual your your review was fantastic.

  12. Aarti says:

    Wow, this sounds like a book that makes an impact. What a great review! Not surprising, of course 🙂

  13. Bookjourney says:

    This sounds good. Great review. 🙂

  14. Jenners says:

    I know I would have died on the trail if I was a pioneer.

  15. Tara says:

    Great review – I really want to read this one.

    I am ignoring your Sacred Hearts review b/c I am going to write my own, soon.

  16. Pingback: Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell | Page247

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