Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell

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Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Stunning debut novel that gets to the heart of breaking a homestead in the Canadian prairies during the depression, laced with the folk and family traditions of the Ukrainian immigrants. An old-fashioned book in the tradition of Sawyer and Alcott, with a modern menace building to a stunning climax. Inspirational.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297856580

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A photograph opens the story. A black and white picture of a family, husband, wife and their three children, smiling for the camera. Thin, underfed, in their summer clothes despite the four inches of snow, they smile. Partly they smile because they do not know what is to come.

A page and five years later we catch up with the Mykolayenkos. In the Spring of 1938 Ivan and his cousin are catching mice in the barn and taking bets on which of the farm cats will pounce on the individually released rodents first. The game is interrupted by a man with a loaded .22 rifle. It takes a while for it to sink in, that this is Ivan's father, Teodor, free after a prison sentence for stealing his own grain.

Life was hard for everyone in the prairies in the 1930s. It was especially hard if you were an immigrant homesteader, with little English, and unable to pay off your dues a few months early.

From this reunion Mitchell takes us through a year with Teodor, his own young family, and the relationship with his sister and her husband (Anna and Stefan Shevchuk). Just one year.

It is a year of growing, of settling, of becoming. It is also a year of pain, of dying, and undoing. A year of joy. A year of despair.

It is a simple tale of honest hardworking folk.

If this all sounds a bit like Little House on the Prairie, then that's understandable. It is not nearly as sweet as the much-loved television series however. For Teodor and his family a little house is the height of their ambition, for Anna a prairie house will always be just a different kind of prison. For these Ukrainian refugees who fled famine and repression at home to find, a little more of the much-the-same in a faraway land, the happy endings never really seem possible.

Hope rises with the sun, but the sun also sets. There are wonderful moments of music and dance, of stories from the homeland, of children playing in the snow, siblings swimming in innocence. But there is a lurking menace throughout.

Anna's husband is a failed army officer, a drunk with big schemes and no successes, and a violent temper.

Out on the hillsides the coyotes howl.

Then there are the fickle ways of the prairie and prairie weather to contend with.

The ever-present threat of disaster looms round an unseen corner of a debut novel that grips from the outset. The very antithesis of a family saga, it stays within the close-knit confines of the two families and the steaded land, with scarcely a trip into town to break the scene. Similarly restricted is the time-frame. The focus is on the minute details of a hard-won existence, and the sheer exuberance when such an existence crosses over into a life.

Those moments of joy light the story, with a fondness for a simple childhood that will chime with many readers, who'll have experienced the last knockings of such traditions and tendencies: shared beds and shared sweets, outhouses and secret treasure troves of found objects.

What really saves it from claustrophobia though is the prairie itself. The distance and space, the wide unbroken sky, the eight mile walk to church and back again, needing a day to visit a neighbour. Mitchell captures all of this in prose as sparse and simple as the lives she tells. A fresh cow pie steams on the floor. The cow moos. These are not sentences you expect to find in a literary novel, but such is Mitchell's grasp of plot and character and place, that she can keep it that simple and still hold the reader.

Over the course of three evenings I lived that year with Teodor and Maria and Anna and the children. I smiled, and I worried for them, and dreaded whatever terrible outcome was waiting by the woodpile. I hated putting it down and couldn't wait to get back to it. I didn't want it to end, because I didn't want to leave the company of those inspiring souls, but also because I didn't want was to come, to come.

The end is satisfyingly abrupt and neat, shocking, but not entirely without the hope shining like a prairie sun round the edges of a thunder cloud.

Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For a mid/late 20th century take on small farm Canadian life try After River by Donna Milner or for more of the wild spaces there's Gil Adamson's The Outlander.

Buy Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell at Amazon.com.


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