Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell is a beautifully written book about family, betrayal and greed - but it took me an incredibly long time to finish it. The gut-wrenching suffering portrayed in this unforgettable story made it a tough read for me. The book is broken up into seasons rather than chapters and it begins in the spring of 1938. It is the story of two Ukrainian families who escape Stalin's regime to build a home on the Canadian prairie, but the dream of a new life is plagued by obstacles from the beginning.
Ukrainian immigrant Teodor Mykolayenko, his wife Maria and their five children are forced to leave their first home in Canada. Teodor keeps some of his grain to make a new start and is arrested for stealing. He is released from prison after serving two years and he returns to his family who are living in a shack on his sister Anna's land. Before he went to prison he made an arrangement with Anna to buy land in her name because a convict is not allowed to own property in Canada. Now that he is back, he intends to fulfill his part of the bargain. Maria becomes pregnant and Teodor works hard to take care of his family. He farms the land, grows wheat and builds a new house for them. Anna's drunk and abusive husband Stefan rapes and impregnates her and then deserts his family. Teodor pays Anna back and provides for her and her two children as well. Anna is deeply depressed and her attempts to miscarry are unsuccessful. When Stefan returns and sees what Teodor's hard work has produced he's determined to have the land and the house for himself. He sets the two families on a course that can only lead to a tragic outcome.
Mitchell's debut novel is written in present tense, a style that usually puts me off but in this case, it works. The writing is so evocative and the prose so descriptive, the tense lends immediacy to the narrative. The author is adept at illustrating a point, even including a recipe for borsch at a place in the story when the family has grown a good crop and has enough to eat. There is little dialogue and yet the story flows. It's told through the viewpoints of vivid personalities that you will either love or hate. The characters live and breathe and that is what makes it such a difficult read. I experienced each hardship and oppression along with them. The violent scenes of animals being killed were painful and not for the squeamish. Anticipation of the next unavoidable tragedy would make me set the book down. I finished it because I make it a rule to do so but it's a story I could only read in small doses. The conflicts keep coming with only fleeting glimpses of happiness to relieve the misery. I don't mind dark and disturbing but this was relentless. It is a dramatic and well-written book. Shandi Mitchell is a wonderful writer but the subject matter was a real downer for me.
Hardcover: 352 Pages