Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Under This Unbroken Sky

I Got a First Look at Barnes & Noble.  Get Your Copy Now

Under This Unbroken Sky
Author: Shandi Mitchell
Harper Books, 2009
348 pages [uncorrected proof version]

I'm so excited because I just read a book that hasn't been published yet! Thanks to Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, I was one of several people who received a free book from B&N and participated in an online discussion. I'm so glad I did, because this turned out to be a real treat. 

You know I like historical fiction, so this is right up my alley. The year is 1938, the place is a rural area in a Canadian prairie province. A family of immigrants from the Ukraine, including brother Teodor and his wife Maria and their kids, and sister Anna and her husband Stefan and their kids, are "sharing" a homestead. Teodor comes home from jail for stealing grain from his last homestead (hard to explain but it was a really stupid law to start with, and he paid the price). Since he's been in jail he's no longer eligible to homestead, so he arranges for his sister to get some land in her name, with the idea that she will eventually sign everything over to him. Obviously this is a sort of hint that it's not going to happen, right? 

They say blood is thicker than water. But is it? See, here's the problem. Anna's husband Stefan is a real jerk. Years ago, she was a beautiful, untamed, ambitious girl and he was a dashing, brave military officer. But over time, Stefan has become a loser and an abusive drunk. If not for Teodor and Maria, the farm would completely fall apart and they would all starve. Years of abuse have stolen Anna's youth and beauty, and she now suffers from a mental illness. In fact, most of the characters in the novel seem to suffer from some sort of mental illness or at least have a character flaw of some sort or a physical imperfection.  Stefan and Anna's daughter, Lesya, has a club foot and their son, Petro, is showing early signs of becoming an abuser like his father. One of Teodor and Maria's daughters has delusions of grandeur, and another is obsessed with the bread at church being called the body of Christ. 

Still, there is something completely captivating about the book and characters. Apparently, the author got the idea for the story while researching some of her own ancestors. That in itself is interesting to me . . . it was one of the things that drew me to Lalita Tademy's Cane River several years ago. This was another book that I found very difficult to stop reading late at night when I knew I should go to sleep. I just wanted to read one more chapter, to find out what was going to happen to the characters. Would the good guys win? Would the bad guys wind up paying? We always expect that to happen, don't we? 

This is what's known as an ARC or advanced reading copy. That means it's not necessarily the final - the publisher still may decide to make changes. So I'm not sure how the published book will be when it comes out. But the first chapter of this version opens with a description of a family photo and foreshadowing that in just a few years' time, two of the people in the photo will be dead.

One of the dead didn't surprise me, but the other one did. Actually, I was infuriated at the death of this other person, so I deducted a star (hey, I can do that) from my review. Why did this bother me so? Because the manner of death did not align with the character I came to know in the book. I will leave it at that, because I don't want to spoil.

Despite this one issue, it really is a very good book, and I really do think it has potential. I'm really excited that I was one of the first to read it!

Rating: 4 stars. Good writing and quite captivating for a first novel.