13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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.
I recommend this book to all fans of historical fiction.
Reviewed by Beverly
September 6, 2009
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2009
In the north Canadian prairie lands, Ukrainian immigrant Teodor Mykolayenko was sent to prison for two years for `stealing' grain that he cultivated. When his family, which includes five children, could not pay for their land, they had to vacate it despite all of the work already done on it. When Teodor tried to take some of the grain to replant somewhere else in order to give his family the start they needed, he was imprisoned for theft. With him gone, his family had no choice but to make ends meet the best way possible. Though it was a struggle, his wife Maria managed. Unable to own property as a criminal, Teodor's sister Anna purchased land with the promise that she would sign over his portion to him. Finally home after his two year sentence, where the book begins, Teodor wants to pick up where he left off with his family, gain ownership of his land through Anna, and build a great home to take care of his wife and children properly. He wants the pride of being able to call something his.
Sister Anna is coming apart just as Teodor tries to mend everything. Pregnant with her third child, a child of rape by her drunken and often absent husband Stefan, she feels a kinship to the wild coyotes that roam the Canadian wild lands. With every howl she hears at night, she recognizes a freedom that has always been denied her. It is hard for Anna to adapt, to accept what life has given her, but Teodor wants all of them to have the best. Things get even worse for Anna when Stefan returns. Desperate to keep him, she sacrifices the love her brother has for her. Because Stefan says so, she submits to allowing him to try to take the land that Teodor has settled on because he has no legal right to it. Anna is willing to forsake her promise and her loyalty to Teodor because she does not want her and her two children to be alone.
By the end, everything has come apart. People lose their lives, dreams are shattered, and a wounded family has to once again pick up and start all over again.
There is no way to say this other than that I love this book. I honestly could not and did not put it down until it was finished. My boyfriend and I went out for a while when I started this book, but all I wanted to do was come home and keep reading. Under This Unbroken Sky is beautifully written and painfully vivid. The descriptions of the Canadian prairie and of the rough, desolate farming conditions are as lovely as they are striking. Each and every character is brilliantly developed and complex. You feel for young Sophie and her desire to be beautiful and rich. You love the innocence in Ivan and his moments of childish selflessness. You respect the strength in Maria and her desire to keep everything together for the sake of her children. And most of all, you can feel just how much Teodor wants his family to be happy. Every day, he goes out to the fields to sweat and toil, and it is all for them. The way Teodor understands and appreciates the land shows his nature as a man who is both gentle and rough, passionate about what he does and respectful of the natural world. Teodor is a pillar of strength to his family and it is easy to see through his character why this is.
There's something about this novel that goes right to your heart. I certainly felt it in mine as I read. By the time I got to the end, I was frantic. I pride myself on being a fairly emotionally balanced person, but this novel broke my heart and almost had me in tears. It's all unbelievably emotional to witness the ups and downs of these imperfect but good people, and you want the best to come to them. When you realize that the most horrible thing you could imagine is about to happen, your heart absolutely breaks.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
(4.5 stars) The Great Plains around Willow Creek, Alberta, burgeon with new life in this dramatic family saga set in 1938. Two Ukrainian families who have escaped starvation during Stalin's "Ukrainian Holocaust" have made their way to Alberta, where they can, for ten dollars, gain the rights to 160 acres of virgin land. In the background leading to the main story here, Theo Mykolayenko, his wife, and four children (later five) have been swindled of their land by opportunists who made Theo sign a contract that he could not read, and his desperate actions after being evicted result in his arrest and imprisonment for two years. His devastated family moves into a small room attached to his sister Anna's cottage, staying alive by helping her. Anna's husband Stefan, who had been a dashing military officer in the Ukraine, has essentially abandoned his wife and two children for a life of drinking and carousing in town.
The action of the novel begins with the return of Theo from jail, weakened, shrunken, and nearly frozen. Now responsible for his family of six, plus his sister and her two children, Theo is a driven farmer, working tirelessly, regardless of wind or weather. Because of Theo's "criminal record," he is prohibited from purchasing land, but his sympathetic sister Anna signs for the plot adjacent to her own on his behalf, and he assumes all the responsibilities for it. The decision of Anna's irresponsible husband Stefan to return home and take advantage of the "thriving" enterprise he sees developing there leads to family conflicts and resentments, which escalate and lead to the climax of the novel.
Shandi Mitchell has created a novel which gives the term "melodrama" a good name. Though the heroic characters are extremely heroic and the villains are extremely villainous, her main characters are well drawn, their behavior understandable within the context of their lives. Her depiction of the children is especially true-to-life, providing delightful, lighter moments in the often bleak landscape of the novel. Through terrible fire dangers in the summer, and blizzards which begin in the early fall, the families persist, though issues arise which test each member to the breaking point.
The leisurely pace of the narrative allows the author to create scenes of tenderness and beauty, but it also allows for scenes of dramatic and terrible import. Here Mitchell, a film-maker and screenwriter, captures the sights, sounds, and smells of the prairie, creating an atmosphere which even those who have never experienced farm life will understand and appreciate. The novel is not subtle, and it is often melodramatic, but it is undeniably moving, and it makes the reader empathize with those who have given so much of themselves to the tilling of the land and providing the food and crops on which life itself depends. Mary Whipple
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, Little House on the Prairie (both the books and then the television series) provided formative entertainment for me. Still an avid reader, no story has quite managed to take me on such an all-consuming journey to another time and place as those inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder ... until now. Set in the Canadian prairies of the late 1930s, Under This Unbroken Sky undulates with intensity and emotion, transporting its readers on a heartrending roller coaster that has them, in turns, aching with love and sympathy for its main characters then seething with hatred and contempt for them, and then back again. With vivid brushstrokes, author Shandi Mitchell paints a page-turning tale that enthralls from beginning to end. By literary voyage's completion, readers will have felt every bump and jostle of the wagon's trek across the land. Woven with wretched acts of God, familial betrayal and hell-bent revenge, Under This Unbroken Sky stays with you long after it is closed. It duly earns its spot as a Little House on the Prairie for grownups.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2010
I have enjoyed reading the reviews written. I have little to add. I felt a need to express how absorbed I became in the lives of the children and how the author was able to describe the world around them, including adult behavior through their eyes. The changes these children went through were at times abrupt and also subtle. The childrens' relationships with one another and also the relationships they had with their parents and aunt and uncle (both families)were described with the language of children. One can see the children shivering and feel their sense of victory at having bargained for a pair of mittens. Their personal means of survival is portrayed within the parents', with the exception of Stefan, broader and long range struggle to survive and to keep them fed and sheltered. .
This is a wonderful book that kept me up late in the night and I finished far too quickly.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2011
Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell was for me the perfect read. Not only was the book terrific but it takes place in a part of the world I could totally relate to - Canada and even more precisely the prairie provinces where I reside. It makes a book so much more meaningful when you recognize places and when something is being described you can clearly see it since you've likely been there yourself. It is also about Ukrainian immigrants - another thing I could clearly relate to as my grandparents immigrated to Canada in the 1920's.
I was hooked on this story from the beginning. It takes place in the 1930's and it is about two families who immigrate to Canada from the Ukraine. Teodor Mykolayenko, a man who has spent 2 years in prison for stealing his own grain, is one of the men - a father of five children and husband to Maria - and finally free and coming home to the Canadian prairies. The other family is Teodor's sister Anna, her husband and their two children.
While Teodor had been in prison Maria and Anna struggled to survive on the prairies as Anna's husband is pretty much a deadbeat and not around. Now though Teodor is home. He has survived the harshest of conditions both in prison and out and is going to make a better life for his family. As soon as he gets on his feet Teodor and his oldest son are out in the fields getting them ready for planting. It is backbreaking work of the hardest kind and the author describes it in such a way that you can feel the pain and sweat going into the work.
In the meantime we learn about how Canadian women planted rows upon rows of food for the family and the work that went into preserving it for the winter. We are given great insight into a truly poor family who had to struggle for everything. There is never enough money for the things they truly need let alone want. It only takes one devastating drought or fire to completely destroy a farmer's life and leave his family facing a winter of starvation. It is definitely enough to put any man under.
Along with the harsh conditions it seems Teodor's sister Anna is losing her mind bit by bit rather quickly. Since Anna's husband is gone it falls on Teodor to take care of her and her family as well. However nothing stays the same and Anna's husband stumbles home one day and everything really heads downhill after that - Stefan is not a nice man. He cares nothing for his family and his only concern is how to get a hold of the money from the crops even though he did nothing to bring them about. With his arrival also comes a downward spiral of events with devastating consequences.
This novel is beautifully written. For me it held a personal touch as my own parents grew up in the 1940's as children on the prairies. Their parents immigrated to Canada and struggled farming much like Teodor's family did. I enjoyed the Ukrainian slang throughout the novel as well as reading about a lot of food that I hold dear to my heart like perogy and borshch.
This is a heartbreaking story yet beyond that is the realization that this novel is very true to life as it was lived in the prairies in the 1930's/1940's. It makes you sit back and realize how truly lucky we are now to have what we do. It is interesting to read how life was back then for families who immigrated to Canada and tried to make a life for themselves and their families. You can feel the hope they carried in the words of this novel; the determination they had to make things better for themselves.
I really would recommend this novel to anyone interested in learning how life was back on the Canadian prairies in the 1930's as well as those interested in a good story that will grab your heart and not let go until well after you've read the last page!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2010
The story begins with the description of a black-and-white photograph. A man, a woman and five children. The date on the photograph is 1933, the place Willow Creek, Alberta.
There are times when I pick up an old photograph of my grandparents or my parents and I spend time thinking about the history behind the faces. What were their desires? What heartbreak did they experience? What hopes and dreams did they have and were those fulfilled or abandoned? Why?
Shandi Mitchell addresses these questions by taking her readers through a period of time in which life was very hard. She introduces us to a family of immigrants, their origin Ukraine. They struggle with learning language and dealing with foreign laws, laws which prevent them from even being able to provide their children with food.
UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY studies the relationship between a brother and a sister and their families. It paints a heart-breaking picture in graphic, real strokes. My heart broke and broke again as I felt each families struggle, felt myself grow angry at the injustice of the actions of both the law and the members of the families. I could feel the tension building with each pounding on the door I read about and every howl of the coyotes in the night air.
Recently I read a book that dealt with the struggle of the immigration process in a more recent time period. That book followed the path of a young Chinese girl and her experience in the sweat shops in New York. UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY gave me a more historical perspective and reminded me that although we may say we have come a long way - even in recent times there are people living in the hardships described in this story.
This book tore at my heart and should be a "must read" for anyone interested in historical literature.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2009
They say that a picture speaks a thousand words but what do you see when the description is presented first? Shandi Mitchell's first novel, Under This Unbroken Sky, tackles this question head on. The novel starts with the description of a 1933, black-and-white photograph of a family. Although there are specifics listed (how each member of the family looks), the reader is free to draw his/her own conclusions about what type of life they have and what brought them to this time/place. Additionally, there is some foreshadowing that states what will become of them. Specifically, that one amongst them will die and two others (not seen) will be murdered. This alone will hook most readers and compel them to take an adventure Under This Unbroken Sky.
The story centers around an immigrant Ukrainian family and chronicles their struggles to survive the harsh Canadian prairie. The land and weather are not the only obstacles that must be faced. At the start of the novel, Teodor Mykolayenko has just finished serving a two year prison sentence and is determined to build a better life for his family. Teo not only supports his family but also supports his sister and her children. He clears his land, builds a house and plants his crops. Just when things start to look hopeful, tragedy - in the form of mother nature - strikes. They are confronted with fire, dust storms and snow. And, each time they survive; however, the real battles occur when Teo's brother-in-law, Stefan, returns. Saying anymore would be giving too much away.
The story was nicely paced and the descriptions were well done. You could clearly picture the environment and feel as though you were witnessing the events first hand. You will come to care for most of the characters and not want to see any of them die. Could you predict who dies? One death may be foreseeable but, for this reader, not the others. This is not a happy go lucky story. It is one of survival. We witness both the broken and the unbroken spirit of a human being trying to survive against all odds - physical and emotional.
I recommend to those interested in discovering a new voice.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2009
This is a tightly woven story about two immigrant families who attempt to break ground and farm in Canada. Teodor and Anna are siblings, both of their families have fled the horrors of their homeland under Stalin and have landed on the Canadian prairie. It's the 30's and like the US, the depression and weather issues of the time take their toll in Canada. Teodor is unable to own land after being accused and arrested of stealing his own grain. His wife Maria, one of the strongest characters in the novel, keeps their homelife intact while they try to rebuild their farm and life. Anna's ne'er do well husband Stefan returns after an absence, which sets in motion many of the tragic events that propel this story to its' conclusion. This is no Little House on the Prairie, as harsh conditions torment these families' hearts and minds. I was fascinated by Mitchell's personal note about the novel, which details a bit about her own grandfather and how that led to this story. That really pushed it to a four star rating for me
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2009
"There is a black and white photograph of a family: a man, woman, and five children. Scrawled on the back, in tight archaic script, are the words Willow Creek, Alberta, 1933. This will be their only photograph together"
It goes on to describe the picture, how they are posed, what they are wearing and their future.
As soon as you read it, your hooked. The curiosity is so strong that I couldn't put it down, I had to see what happens to this family.
It's a story of 2 families , immigrated from the Ukraine to Canada, in the 1930's. One family with 2 kids and a dad that is never home. The other family with 4 children and a father who returns from being in jail , "600 days and nights. Four hundred and eighty thousand steps paced in an 8x8 foot cell", as he recalls.
Theodor and the oldest son Myron, prepare the land to sow the wheat . It's a back breaking job, plowing, clearing the rocks. It takes them 4 days to finish 1 row.
It also tells of the children working on their chores, washing the clothes, tending to the animals, preparing the food.
They have some fun times and some very bad times and then the happiness goes away.
The story never gets boring, so many twists and turns and oddness. There were parts where you laugh with them, punch and yell and scream, cry and wish you could hold each child and tell them its going to be ok.