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Under This Unbroken Sky


Under This Unbroken Sky

Canadian filmmaker and screenwriter Shandi Mitchell has taken
her keen visual eye and turned it toward the novel with this story
of survival in a harsh new landscape. Teodor Mykolayenko, his wife
Maria, their five children, his sister Anna and her young family
have all migrated from the Ukraine to the Canadian prairies in the
hopes of a fresh start on land they can call their own. Shortly
after their arrival, Teodor is arrested (falsely and unfairly) for
stealing grain that was really his own and sentenced to two years
in prison. Maria has to cope with the care of her family as well as
her sister-in-law’s brood. Anna’s ne’er-do-well
husband, Stefan, is no help at all and frequently leaves for weeks
and months at a time when farm life proves too tough.

Upon his return from prison, Teodor is anxious to get his family
back on their feet. Because of his prison record, he is not allowed
to buy land, so Anna puts the land deed in her name, with the
understanding that he will pay her back the $10 homesteading fee
and do all the work. It’s back-breaking work, but to him
it’s restorative: “As Teodor tends the earth, he heals
himself. In the field, he forgets about the past, forgets about the
prison walls, and focuses only on the job at hand.” He
cultivates the land and makes it inhabitable and even profitable to
his family as the crops he lovingly and painstakingly plants start
to prosper. The families endure months and months of exhausting
work, rough, rocky ground, dust storms and brush fires that
threaten not only their land but also their very lives.

Though not easy, they weather these storms and even begin to see
a little return on their investment. The crops are starting to come
in, and they have enough food to last them through the harsh
winters. In keeping with his character (or lack thereof), now that
the families are in good stead, Stefan decides to return. He
hasn’t been home since the night months ago when he stopped
in long enough to impregnate Anna. But he has heard that Teodor is
making a go of the farm and wants his share. He knows that the land
is in his wife’s name and lords this over Teodor, who feels
for Anna but is adamant that things be equitable.

Teodor has done all the work, with the agreement that the land
would be his. He has his own expanding family to worry about, as
Maria is expecting another child. Although Anna suffers at the
hands of her violent husband, she sides with him against her
brother for fear of being completely abandoned. Her loneliness and
sorrow surround her like a mist. She takes to wandering the
prairies at night, communing with the howling coyotes that prowl
after dark. Can these two families survive country life and each

With aspects of the Little House books and novels like
compelling as it is heart-wrenching. The severe desolation of life
on the Canadian prairie is so richly described by Shandi
Mitchell’s lyrical writing. Life was indeed hard back then,
but there’s a beauty in its bleakness. As the author so
eloquently states, when pondering the themes of her first novel,
“…the story was about life, in all its beauty and
savagery. It was about the moral lines that divide and join us.
What is remembered and what is forgotten. And the fine line between
those who break and those who don’t.” I couldn’t
have said it better myself.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 24, 2011

Under This Unbroken Sky
by Shandi Mitchell

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061774022
  • ISBN-13: 9780061774027