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Lysenko, Vera
Edmonton, NeWest Press, 1992. 355pp, paper, $14.95, ISBN 0-920897-92-4. CIP

Grades 7 and up/Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Barbara Camfield

Volume 20 Number 4
1992 September

This novel by Ukrainian-Canadian writer Vera Lysenko was first published in 1954, and received little critical attention. Now, however, with renewed interest in the multiracial make-up of Canada, this novel may become better known as one of the first to be published in English by a Ukrainian-Canadian.

Based on the life story of a friend of Lysenko's, this female Bildungsroman recounts the development from childhood to adulthood of Lilli Landash on the Canadian prairie. Born into a peasant farming family recently settled in Manitoba, Lilli is sent away at a young age to live with relatives. Her father was disappointed with the birth of a daughter instead of a son, and in one episode literally cuts the "gypsy" out of the family portrait.

On the brink of death, Lilli is returned to the family, and survives to observe the family's preparation for her own funeral. Despite peasant superstitions and gloomy portents, Lilli begins to assert her indomitable spirit and independence. Her father attempts to subdue her by forcing her into hard labour on the farm, and later by insisting that she marry a disagreeable old widower who promises him a land deal in exchange.

Lilli decides to leave the farm on the advice of her school teacher, and eventually has a successful career as a singer and dressmaker in Winnipeg. Her greatest pleasure has always come from her ability to preserve her Ukrainian heritage and love of nature through her songs and passing her joy to her audience.

Lysenko reveals a strong social conscience in this feminist ethnic novel. When Lilli arrives in Winnipeg from the country farm, she is forced to work long hours for minimal pay as a domestic. Her employer has an abundance of wealth to spend on herself and her home, but not on her maid's wages or living quarters.

The first-generation immigrants who worked in European factories remember harsh treatments by their employers. Although the immigrants generally become wealthier and enjoy more comfortable lives in Canada, traditions, ethnic foods and costumes gradually disappear. Lilli is disappointed when she returns to the farm after ten years and discovers that many of the traditional customs and ceremonies have been replaced or forgotten.

Although this novel verges at times on the sentimental, it would be enjoyable reading, particularly for young adults. It gives a glimpse into the ethnic prairie farming community in Canada in the 1930s and follows an easy story-line.

Barbara Camfield is Chief of Reference Services at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario

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