CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 2 . . . . September 14, 2007
It has long been my dream to write a story of the treatment of Ukrainians in Canada at the turn of the century, and so I was absolutely delighted to read Prisoners in the Promised Land: The Ukrainian Internment Diary of Anya Soloniuk, by Marsha Skrypuch. As a part of the “Dear Canada” series, it is full of historical information in a diary format. Skrypuch has packed the book with an amazing amount of details without bogging the story down. For fans of historical fiction, this book is a dream.
Anya’s journey begins in Horoshova where her life and the pressures of immigrating are explored. The early diary entries are clipped and short but become more complicated as Anya matures throughout the book. Her father awaits the family in Montreal, and, after a long and terrible boat ride, they are reunited to begin what should have been a promising new life. When the First World War breaks out, an already prickly Canadian reception of Anya and her fellow immigrants turns very ugly. She becomes the sole provider for the family as her father is laid off of work for “patriotic reasons”, but the social climate leaves the streets a dangerous place for Anya and her mother to traverse. Eventually, the family and nearly all of their neighbours are sent away to the Spirit Lake internment camp, where they are treated as criminals, and, as Skrypuch notes, in worse conditions than most other internees around Canada.
The story becomes more compelling as Anya and her family are subjected to an irrational and outraged Canadian socio-political environment. Skrypuch does an amazing job including fascinating bits of information naturally into Anya’s writing. Small details are included like children calling Anya “bohunk,” the costs of goods, and the fear of having a lunch that smells like garlic – a distinctly different smell than that found in the other children’s lunches. By capturing the everyday experience of a new Canadian immigrant at the turn of the century, Skrypuch touches on issues and experiences that could easily be transferable to present day immigrants.
Because of the diary format, the story is limited to Anya’s viewpoint. Despite this, the hardship and experiences of her parents and those around her come naturally into the storyline. Skrypuch includes many details of Anya’s lifestyle and culture at home in Horoshova, and how the family would have functioned were they to remain there.
Skrypuch reaches broadly at the progression of the war, and the policies Canada held during war time. She deftly interweaves the large scope of history not only with everyday life, but also with a literary quality that makes the book compelling to read.
Prisoners in the Promised Land shares a story that has always existed in Canada and yet is rarely told. It is a fantastically thorough and entertaining piece of historical fiction that boldly reveals the many contrasts both of Canadian history and human nature.
Brianne Grant is a student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia.
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