Under This Unbroken Sky
Published by Harper Perennial
Late breaking news, special for the FTC: I received this book from the publisher, on account of I’m writing this post as part of a TLC tour.
I loved Little House on the Prairie when I was a kid. It was so romantic…a family struggling against the land, united in their vision for a better life. Ma and Pa were so wise, and everyone loved one another, and the girls grew up and got married to dreamboats and everyone lived happily ever after.
This ain’t Little House on the Prairie. Yes, there’s a little house (it’s actually a shed), and it is set on the prairie (the Canadian prairie, in the 1930s), but this book is hecka depressing. Okay, maybe not depressing. It’s bleak. On second thought, it’s bleak AND depressing. It’s one of those books that just makes you want to scream, “For god’s sake, can’t anyone get a break?!?” And I don’t seem to recall having that response after watching an episode of Little House.
But. This book is damn good. Realistically good. In fact, I think that should be a new genre…realistically good fiction. What do you think? Am I on to something? (Which is entirely different than being on something, although come to think of it, my brain just might be a little fried from this heat wave that we’re having).
Anyhoosie, on to the review…I wouldn’t want to have to fire myself for not fulfilling non-contractual obligations.
Under This Unbroken Sky is about the Mykolayenko family, Ukranian immigrants who escaped starvation and Stalin’s purges to start over with nothing in Canada. However, Canada isn’t exactly the Promised Land, as they continue to struggle against the land and the weather, and eventually, each other. After the family loses its first homestead and Teador Mykolayenko serves two years in prison for stealing his own grain (and you’ll just have to read the book to figure out how that can happen), they start over again on Teador’s sister’s property. But…Teaodor’s sister Anna married a drunken conniver, and his schemes will endanger all the family has struggled to achieve.
I’ll confess I got a little confuzzled by the family drama, but the strength of this novel is in its recounting of the immigrant experience. Life was harsh on the prairie, and the Ukrainians didn’t exactly get the cream of the crop (har har) land-wise. Every day, every moment, was a struggle to survive. To grow food for the table. And crops for money to pay off the government. To build a house to shelter the family. To be on guard against the fickle weather and whatever fate would throw up to challenge the little bit that they had managed to achieve. There are small moments of happiness, but overall, they are just small moments. Teodor and his wife, Maria, are largely focused on survival. They don’t rail against fate, they just get up every morning and keep on going. And that’s what I loved about this book…it’s gritty and it’s real and it’s so every day.
I’ll leave you with a passage that seemed representative of the book as a whole, as well as its tone. These are Anna’s thoughts about her life:
She had no choice the moment she was born. She would marry, she would bear children, she would farm, she would be poor, she would sacrifice her desires for the good of her husband, her family, she would be obedient and selfless. That was all that was offered. That was her only choice. And she tried to choose well: she chose a life that would take her off of the farm and into the city. She chose an officer. She made the best choice to save herself, and she ended up here.
She has become this bloated thing. Her nails are cracked; dirt has leached into her skin, staining the bottom of her feet, the back of her neck. Her teeth are yellow. Her vagina is loose and used. She is old. She is rotting. (from p. 289)
Many thanks to TLC tours for the opportunity to read this wonderfully bleak book (and I mean that in the best possible way), and to Harper Perennial for sending me the review copy. To read more about the book, and to see all of the other tour stops, visit the TLC page for Under This Unbroken Sky.