I cannot reconcile Mitchell's account with the people I knew
I really didn't like Shandi Mitchell's "Under the Unbroken Sky"! To me it was just another tale of poverty-stricken misery, like Helen Forrester's memoirs of her Liverpool childhood and Frank McCourt's of his in Ireland.
It's terribly depressing to read of hunger, filth, mental illness, treachery, brutality, hostile people, degradation...on and on and on.
The Canadian prairies are a tough place to live; I know, I was born and lived there for a long time. But the Ukrainian-Canadians whom I knew in Manitoba--of the same generation as those described in Mitchell's book--were resilient, resourceful, humorous, and spirited people, and their children (now in their 60s and 70s) grew up to become doctors, lawyers, artists and musicians, business people. My best friend's mother (raised on a Manitoba farm) bought her own store; she and her husband (who'd fled Ukraine rather than starve under Stalin's repression) raised their five kids in rooms behind this mom-and-pop grocery store. She was also a poet. All five kids attended Ukrainian language classes (as well as good old Lord Roberts School, of course), and all five took music lessons. Four have made music their livelihood at one time or another.
Another woman whom I know, who came to Winnipeg not knowing a word of English, worked in the needle trade, and ultimately bought the apartment building next door to my childhood home.
I cannot reconcile Mitchell's account with the lives of the people whom I knew and admired.
She betrays herself as a Maritimer when she states that the kids didn't attend school because the temperatures hit twenty below. I taught in an elementary school in Winnipeg for three years. We could have indoor recess if, and only if, the temperature went (below) twenty below. (And wind chill wasn't a factor considered at that time!) When the kids (and I, if I were on recess duty that day) came indoors, and they had divested themselves of all their outdoor clothing, and their mittens were steaming atop the radiators, I would have them sit with their palms over their frostbitten cheeks for ten minutes or so while I read them a story. But school (200 days a year) was never cancelled (except one day during a blizzard; I walked three miles downtown and hitched a ride before reaching the school and learning this), and no one ever stayed away because of the cold. This applied to kids living in the country, too, not just city kids; my brother-in-law attended a rural one-room school and also taught in one for four years. He rode an old horse to school in the winters when he was a student and the snow was particularly deep.
Mary G. (Shreveport, LA)
Under this Unbroken Sky
I found this book very well written - the characters are lifelike and compelling and I was intrigued to find out what would happen. Mitchell's prose is lovely but not distracting, and her details of day-to-day life made the story very convincing. All of this said, these characters lead lives of incredible hardship. This is a really fine book, but not a "feel good" read - it's much too true to the life of that time and place to be light-hearted.
Doris K. (Angora, MN)
Under This Unbroken Sky
This book is very well written. The author's description of people's feelings, seasons of the year, landscapes, etc. are done in a wonderfully clear manner. For example: the bitter but awesome winter is familiar to me as I live in northern Minnesota.
Many tragedies come to the family. Each character faces these setbacks in their own way, giving a true insight into their strengths and weaknesses. I found the book fascinating and one that I will remember for a long time.
Carol T. (Ankeny, Iowa)
As I read Under This Unbroken Sky, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rolvaag’s classic Giants in the Earth. While Under This Unbroken Sky is more grim, both writers were unafraid to show immigrant life as it really was, not the “streets paved with gold” of myth. Most of our ancestors lived some version of this life, no matter where they settled. Life really was – and is – primarily a matter of making the most of what you have and starting over and over and over from wherever you find yourself.
Mitchell knows how to draw multi-dimensional, convincingly real characters with minimal lines, letting us into the minds of each in turn, and in the process builds suspense because we know something about each one’s internal life that the others can’t know. Their lives play out in front of us, as though we’re watching a gritty play – or real life. Plagues and all.
Under This Unbroken Sky is not only just a “good read,” but also would be an excellent book for group discussion, whether in a high school or college lit or history class or an adult book club.
Beverly J. (Huntersville, NC)
The Illusion of Freedom
In Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell, the reader is treated to a beautifully written debut novel which describes a slice of life of the Ukrainian immigrants in the northern plains of Canada.
It is the spring of 1937, and Theo Mykolayenko returns to his wife and children after serving two years in jail for stealing his own grain. Theo stoically survived jail time by keeping his eyes on the prize of being free and owning his land. After all, wasn’t Canada the land of the free? Maria, his wife, and children survived the years by living in Theo sister’s shed and by pooling together their resources. Theo’s sister, Anna, has secured an adjacent homestead for Theo, unbeknown to her abusive husband. Will Theo be able to forget the past injustices and keep his eye on the future? Why does Anna cohort with the coyotes and will she learn from their strength to resist letting her husband back into her life? Will Maria, with her soothing spirit, be able to mend her husband and her sister-in-law? Will the children of Theo and Anna be able to straddle both their Ukrainian past and Canadian future?
This was an impressive novel that succeeded on many levels. The characters just came alive and will have the reader vested in their lives and feel their pain and joy of the vicissitudes of life. The description of the land and how unrelenting the elements were made Mother Nature a character in the book and you were rooting for this villainous character not to succeed in her attempt to break the spirit and resilience of the other characters. Tragedy was always looming, but to the credit of Shandi Mitchell’s skill as a writer, I was not quite sure when it would happen or to whom. This was an excellent immigrant story which showed that the success of the immigrant was less about the immigrants will to succeed but more on how much the new country was willing to allow the immigrant to succeed, and how those in power would always make and change the rules to make sure that they stayed in power.
Suzanne G. (Tucson, AZ)
Under This Unbroken Sky (Should it be Broken Sky?)
To start with, I had no idea that Canada invited Ukrainian immigrants. This book kept my interest to the end. In the beginning, I was apprehensive at each page turn: What possibly could go wrong with the characters next? I felt I was reading the unfolding of a scary movie. The author's descriptions and details were vivid and believable. I could not wait for the end, yet having been warned the the ending was tragic, I knew I was asking for some disappointment with the story.
Not so--as it was as it had to be and the family moved on. My mother was born into a family of farmers who'd traveled by train from the Midwest to homestead in Washington state. Her stories of the near poverty (although c. 1910) reminded me that farming was not easy at all--even in later years.
Maxine D. (Effingham, IL)
Under This Unbroken Sky
This was not an easy book to read, but somehow I was reluctant to put it down, and when I finished it I realized how deeply I had been drawn into the lives of this extended family.
The writing is sharply expressive, the landscapes vividly described; the reader is truly there. There is no happy ending, just a continuation of the will to survive no matter how long dreams must be deferred or how many hopes are dashed.