UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY
by Shandi Mitchell
Harper Collins, September 2009
My Rating: B
Teodor is an immigrant farmer in Canada in 1938. He was swindled out of his homestead and put in prison for attempting to steal his own grain. Being confined to a small prison cell nearly drove Teodor mad. He’s an outdoor man, used to working during all four seasons out under the wide open sky. It is now Spring and Teodor has been released from prison.
Waiting for him at his sister’s homestead is his wife Maria and their five children. They are malnourished but have survived living in a small shed. Teodor’s sister Anna signed up for a homestead in her name with the understanding that when Teodor returned from prison he would work the land and it would be his.
When Teodor returns, after walking all the way, his family is happy to see him although the younger children are not even sure they recognize him. After sleeping for three days Teodor is ready to resume life. He eats for the first time at home.
“He fills the spoon and lifts it to his mouth, holds it safely away so as not to stain his shirt. Hw blows. Brings his lips to its edge. Sips in the steaming broth. He holds it in his mouth, lets it spill against his cheeks. Cups it in his tongue. Vinegar. Beets. Cabbage. Potato. Dill. Pepper. It is the best food he has ever tasted. Teodor swallows and tears leak from his eyes.”
It takes a while for Teodor to regain his strength but gradually he and his oldest son Myron clear six acres. They do it by hand with only the help of an old horse. After the land is cleared they plant their wheat. Once that is done Teodor can begin to build a log cabin, again by hand.
Meanwhile Maria and the children plant a huge garden. They know this is the food that will keep them alive during this next year. The two children of Teodor’s sister, Anna, are also part of the chores. Anna is not. She is pregnant and suffering from other problems. Anna and her husband Stephan have never really adjusted to the new life. Stephan is mostly absent and extremely absive when he is present. In addition, he does no work on the homestead. He says he is just not a farmer. But he has no problem living off the hard work of others.
The story begins in the Spring and follows both families through the next three seasons. There are the natural disasters that all farmers face: damaging insects, weather, dust storms and fire. Teodor must fight them as well as the man made ones.
I was pulling for Teodor and Maria’s family all the way through the book. They were so incredibly hard-working, all of them. And, they had such faith and hope for the future. It was an emotional book for me. I’ll warn you that I found the ending to be overwhelmingly sad. I was so wrapped up in the book that when it ended I was totally spent. I could not read anything for more than 24 hours. That’s how wrapped up I became in the story.
I read this book for Barnes and Nobles’ First Look Book Club which means this was the debut novel of the author Shandi Mitchell. It did not feel like a first novel at all. Ms. Mitchell has come to her novel writing by way of screenwriting and filmmaking. In fact she is an award-winning filmmaker. She and her husband live in Nova Scotia.