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Shandi Mitchell breaks ground

First-time novelist Shandi Mitchell's Under This Unbroken Sky recalls the struggles of Canada's western immigrants.

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Buses roll by frequently. Dog-walkers stroll past, some stopping to chat with coffee-drinkers sitting in a line of chairs and tables. Cyclists pull up and lock their bikes.

It's an everyday scene, an intersection of activity that Shandi Mitchell might well describe. A screenwriter and filmmaker by trade, her first novel, Under This Unbroken Sky, is being launched this Thursday. "I come to [prose-writing] with a very strong visual sense," she says of moving from film to novel.

Mitchell builds her story about a Ukrainian family's struggle for footing in Depression-era Alberta on simple sentence structures with strong, active verbs, compact but rich description and focussed passages, which the author admits she thought of in terms of as scenes: "To come in before it starts happening and to get out before it's all resolved."

The story begins with Theo Mykolayenko returning from prison for contravening Canadian rules regarding rental of and repayment for land. In the first several pages, Mitchell gets inside Theo's mind and at the same time underscores the underlying sales pitch to Canada's western immigration, if not all immigration everywhere throughout history: "It was my grain. The words roll dull and hollow in his head, worn from the constant repetition. Come to the land of wheat. A hundred and sixty acres. Ten dollars is all it will cost. Come, they said."

Theo returns home almost beyond repair. His wife Maria and children welcome him back, uneasily at first. The family has to live on land owned by Anna, Theo's sister, and Stefan, once a Ukrainian military officer, now a drunk, dreamer and absentee father.

Mitchell follows Theo's family as it regains balance within and among themselves and with the land they're working.

The family fights a fire crossing the northern Alberta prairie. Mitchell animates the fire as a being: visceral, alive, willful.

"It's an unknown that's larger than us. It can spare us or it can destroy us," she remarks in a conversation taking place before Hurricane Bill had reached the northern Atlantic, while forest fires burned up and down North America's west coast.

Similarly, the author presents the perils and dangers of winter as part of the family's everyday experience, such as when Theo's young son Ivan follows his big brother Miron through the cold, across snow and ice and against wind to check the rabbit traps. Though a fact of their existence, the effort seems immense.

While reading this book, the reader often questions whether land can truly be owned, whether land ownership is a fact of freedom, a free existence, a figment of imagination, or a kind of incarceration.

"Most people weren't," heroes, Mitchell says. "They struggled and failed and were human."

Eventually, Stefan and Anna unravel. Their children bear the brunt, but so do Theo and his family. "What is the breaking point?" Mitchell asks, repeating to readers a question she posed to herself during the writing of Under This Unbroken Sky.

When she was 18, the author experienced a breaking point herself: her grandfather, a Ukrainian immigrant to Alberta, did not die from the flu, as family memory held.

Though the revelation broke the ground from which the novel eventually grew, this book doesn't tell Mitchell's grandfather's story. That narrative already exists and has a right to remain as it is, Mitchell says. "It's a bigger story than my grandfather's death."

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