The central character, Taras Kalyna, has run away from the Austrian army on the brink of World War I, to follow his love, Halya, to Canada. He can’t know how hard it will be to find her again or that his search will be interrupted by two years in what some have called “Canada’s Gulag.” Because Ukrainians come from Austrian-ruled territories, they will be classed as “enemy aliens” and confined behind barbed wire in internment camps. Not every single Ukrainian; the emphasis was on the unemployed, the political (such as union activists), and people who were in somebody’s way.
The novel involves class relations. Halya’s ambitious father gets her a job as companion to a rich woman, Louisa Shawcross. Louisa is the mother of Ronnie Shawcross, Taras’s boss at the small-town brick plant, and he falls in love with Halya. Taras becomes a person in his way. Ronnie denounces him to the police.
By the end of the story, Taras and Halya do come together again. Taras has come to love the southern Saskatchewan landscape and raises horses like the one he saw in a dream as a young man in the old country.
Storytelling is an important element. To explain why he’ll never return to the old country, Taras begins a tale – about why he left – which lasts for most of the time in camp and helps to sustain the men’s spirits. Another character, Myro, a teacher, tells stories about the great 19th century Ukrainian poet and patriot, Taras Shevchenko. In these stories the narrative moves to the poet’s point of view. We see him in St. Petersburg and elsewhere and we learn of his own “internment” – his exile to eastern Russia.
When I get something new from Regina’s Coteau Books I usually pay extra attention. In the recent past, Coteau has consistently meant quality. I first ran into Barbara Sapergia with her last novel, Dry, which was set in a near-future Canada during an agonizing time of the dramatic climate change. She returns with Blood and Salt, a dystopian novel that takes readers back to 1915 when more than 8,000 mostly Ukrainian Canadians were interned in forced-labour settlements.
The scene is the Castle Mountain Banff Interment Camp where Taras Kalyna will spend the next few years, lacking food in freezing conditions, working to clear the way for Trans-Canada Highway and condemned for being a citizen of Austria.
At night in the bunkhouse, stories are told. As a narrative device, it works well. Not only does Taras review his life for fellow prisoners, his friend, Myro, tells the separate but connected story of another Taras, Taras Shevchenko, painter, poet, and champion of a free Ukraine. It is through storytelling that Canada’s First World War gulag becomes a realistic fact, a heart-breaking passage of time dyed by shame, suspicion and secrets.
While much is known about the Japanese-Canadian internments of the Second World War (remember Joy Kogawa’s Obasan?), few today realize that immigrants lured to the country by the promise of free land became victims of the time. How do I know? The men in Blood and Salt explain, “That’s how stories work.”
Saskatoon writer Barbara Sapergia's latest work, Blood and Salt, is an engaging and informative novel based on the internment of Ukrainian immigrants during the First World War. Although these immigrants were invited to Canada with the promise of free land - they were used to wide open spaces and they knew how to farm - the Depression leading up to the war made extra workers undesirable and their Austrian passports - they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - sealed their fate. Anyone with a passport issued by a country with which Canada was at war came immediately under suspicion, Ukrainian or not. Sapergia's focus is a group of men swept up from the Prairie provinces into a camp near Banff, in the shadow of Castle Mountain. Here the men try to understand why they've been arrested and how long they are expected to be away from their families and jobs. They also think about, and even attempt, escape, and fight with the guards and among themselves. What the men are supposed to be doing is building roads, and some of those roads survive today, but the men soon realize, and even the guards do eventually, that these are all make-work projects for people the government isn't sure what to do with. The resulting sense of ennui leads to long days and longer nights during which the men must entertain themselves or go crazy. Here Sapergia's novel takes on an idealism perhaps not shared by inmates of such a camp, but this is historical fiction and a little fictionalizing is necessary. Indeed, the inmates soon discover that the novel's main character, Taras, and a couple of others, are pretty good storytellers. When they protest that they can't possibly know what various people in their stories were thinking or doing, starting in the old country and coming across to Canada, their eager listeners simply shout, "Make us see it," or "Make us a story." And that is what Sapergia does, showing the lives of Taras and his love, Halya, in their little corner of the empire and how each with their families got out and came to Canada. Halya's father is dead set against her marrying Taras, so we get a story of love up against unbearable odds in that narrative strain. Then there are the internees, one of whom is a teacher in his real life, conducting philosophical, historical and sociological inquiries about the men in relation to their adopted country, their former country - Austria - and the country of their heart and souls, Ukraine. These men are so enlightened, or willing to become so, that despite a little infighting, they manage to debate the great issues of nationhood, race, war, immigration policy, economic depression, capital-ism versus socialism, unions, and even spend time, in more than one place, pondering the mysterious disappearance of First Nations peoples in order to make room for white immigrants. Yes, these men are an idealized version of an internment camp - more of a classical debating society than a forced labour camp, but all in all Sapergia pulls off the whole enterprise. By juggling the men's day-to-day labour with news of the war in Europe, the philosophical oppositions among the prisoners with those among the men guarding them, stories of the past - including a history lesson on the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and his struggle to write as a Ukrainian - with stories of life in Canada, Sapergia keeps her story moving right along, always captivating as well as sympathetic. And then there's a love story, as well, none of which is easy. Blood and Salt is a lesson in story making as it makes a powerful story whose themes of race, entitlement, and oppression are still required reading today and for days to come.
On a hot summer night in 1915, a passenger train filled with Ukrainian immigrants rolls westward through the Canadian Prairies. The train is heading for the Castle-Mountain Banff Internment Camp, and none of the men on the train know why they are there. Certainly not Taras Kalyna, barely twenty, who followed his love, Halya, when her family emigrated to rural Saskatchewan. Only a short while ago, Taras and his parents were making a new life for themselves, building a home, working the land, and finding steady employment in town. The Canadian government then decided that Ukrainians, coming from a region ruled by Austria, posed a threat during wartime and should be contained for the duration. His freedom gone, Taras now sits on a train that is carrying him to a prison camp in the Rocky Mountains. Taras lives at the camp for two years. The men rise early, and spend the day hacking away at the mountains to clear out a path for the Trans-Canada Highway. It is hard work, made even more difficult by austere living conditions and lack of decent food. Fortunately for Taras, he quickly befriends the other men in his bunkhouse, and at night, they tell stories. Myro relates the adventures of the celebrated painter and poet Taras Shevchenko, who dreamt, above all else, of a free Ukraine, and Taras tells how he came to be separated from the beautiful Halya and his plans to find her when the imprisonment is over. Through the power of storytelling, the men discover their capacity to speak out against injustice and create a better situation for everyone. Told in a wonderfully conversational voice, Blood and Salt effectively exposes the atrocity of Canadian internment camps while reflecting on the importance of love, freedom and national identity. This compelling story will appeal to those who enjoyed the themes in Obasan by Joy Kogawa and Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, as well as to readers of well-written historical fiction set in Canada.
This is a book that I knew I'd be fascinated by: it tells the story of Ukrainian Canadians who were placed in internment camps during WWI, under the mistaken assumption that they belonged to the AustroHungarian empire and were therefore enemy aliens.
The fact that there were Ukrainian internment camps comes as a surprise to many people; but there were, both in Western and Eastern Canada. (another book that deals with this issue, though aimed at children, is Marsha Skrypuch's Prisoners in the Promised Land It looks at the eastern camp of Spirit Lake which was again different because it held whole families, not just men.)
This is a book written in a simple, conversational tone. It isn't fancy. It tells an important story in a way that feels as if you're sitting listening to someone talk. The main character is Taras Kalyna, who immigrated with his parents after they feared he was going to have to fight in an upcoming war for Austria. Taras' true love Halya immigrated ahead of him with her father and grandmother, and Taras swears he will find her.
The Kalynas get to Canada and take a long train ride west to their new land. As they settle in and begin to make a life for themselves, WWI begins, and Taras, as a young healthy man, is arrested and interned at the Castle Mountain Internment camp (although there is some question as to who turned him in and why...) He and the other men interned are required to hack through forests and dig rock to build a new highway, the Banff-Laggan (Lake Louise) road, summer or winter. Some of the guards are decent men, some are typical of those guarding others -- power hungry and abusive. There are many men in the camp, and Taras finally finds his own private circle, a varied group of men he befriends through proximity. The kinds of men -- a socialist, a teacher, an artist, for example -- in Taras' circle allow for the story to insert elements of the Ukrainian Canadian story in a natural way. And there is a lot of history in this book; I felt that Sapergia was able to weave the facts and the "lectures" into the story very naturally, and give it a meaningful context so that it didn't feel like a textbook or a clumsy history lesson. Each of the men has a past and a particular interest, and their relationships with each other and with the guards develop naturally to provide a complex picture of the situation.
But this book is something more than a history of internment camps. The back story and the incidental side characters are both developed fully, allowing for a lot of mystery and resonance in the telling. We learn about life in Ukraine that led many to emigrate, we see, taste and smell Western Canada as it looked to immigrants in the early part of the century, we learn fascinating social realities and meet Ukrainians who are not all the same, who are not a faceless mass of "peasants in sheepskin coats" but are individuals with particular habits, mannerisms, fears and joys, likes and dislikes. Not only Taras' story is told, but also Halya's (she is a great character) Through her we get a glimpse at women's lives during this era. Taras' friends in the internment camps also have stories before and after their experience there.
His parents make their own way through this new land, befriending Moses, the local "black Ukrainian", an orphan from an African American immigrant family who was adopted by a childless Ukrainian man and grows up to be both black and Ukrainian by language and culture.
It's a rich tale that is paced well and reveals injustice and horror, as well as loyalty, friendship and true love. You don't have to be Ukrainian to enjoy it, but you will certainly learn about the Ukrainian Canadian experience if you do read it! I'd be shocked if this book didn't end up on the shortlist for the Kobzar Award, as it raises awareness of Ukrainian Canadian culture in a beautifully readable way. Highly recommended for anyone looking for stories of Canadians that have remained untold for many years.