My grandparents came to Canada in the 1920s, around the same time period in which Barbara Sapergia’s new novel, Blood and Salt, is set. My grandfather arrived a couple of years in advance; he homesteaded near High Prairie, and finally settled in Calmar, Alberta. He came to Canada following the same promise of land, freedom and opportunity that Sapergia’s characters follow. Eventually, my grandfather sent a letter to his wife in Warsaw telling her to sell everything and come to Canada with the two children. She did just that. One of those two children was my dad. So it was with great curiosity and no small amount of excitement that I picked up Sapergia’s sweeping historical narrative about a small group of Ukrainian immigrants at the advent of World War One.
The novel begins with a baffled Taras Kalyna, leaning against the window of a passenger train filled with other confused Ukrainians, on their way to the Castle Mountain internment camp. I knew about the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, but I must have missed school the day the Ukrainian internment camps were discussed. Perhaps it is not included in the curriculum. If it isn’t, it ought to be.
Most of Blood and Salt is set in Castle Mountain and the sections that focus on life in the internment camp—the friendships and struggles, the relationships with the various guards and the overwhelming feeling of injustice—are, by far, the core strength of the novel. This is an incredible story underscored by a government’s ignorance, an unwillingness to listen and profound fear. What happened in these internment camps was inhumane, unjust and shameful. Sapergia shows us this story beautifully. I felt embarrassed, and shocked and angry.
While there are some lovely convergent plotlines in Blood and Salt, this is really a novel about storytelling. It is a major theme and Sapergia weaves her stories together into a fine tapestry, as if she is whispering in the reader’s ear, “We human beings are hard-wired to tell stories.” It seems everyone in the book is a storyteller and these characters all want stories—they yearn for stories and they seem to understand that the truth of a story is far more important than the facts. They forgive fabrication, imagination and augmentation.
Taras finds himself in the camp with a core group of men who become life-long brothers. Together, they suffer the indignities of camp life, and at night when they are exhausted and hungry, and often cold, they look for a story—and they find Taras.
Taras has followed the love of his life, Halya, when her family emigrates to Canada and settles in rural Saskatchewan. Things go okay for the first while. Taras and his parents work their homestead. He gets a job in town, makes a friend and begins to look for Halya. When the Canadian government decides that Ukrainians are a danger because they came from a region ruled by Austria, the nightmare begins. An RCMP officer shows up one day and informs the family that they are going to have to report weekly to police headquarters because they are now considered threats.
Even though he and his parents came to this country because of its freedoms, Taras, and the hundreds of men like him, soon have their freedom stripped away. At a union-organizing meeting, Taras is arrested—there is a bit of a sub-plot here about a mean-spirited boss who also loves Halya—and he is shipped off to the camp. There he spends two years, and grows into a decent and compassionate man who will speak up against injustice. He finds his voice.
One of the men in the camp, Ihor, confesses to Taras that he does not really understand Castle Mountain. This small moment, which echoes throughout the narrative, for me, is stunningly beautiful. It is a simple thing, but it describes the toll of internment so well. These men, who are in the heart of the Rocky Mountains spending their days in hard labour, clearing the forest for the Trans-Canada Highway, still want to find beauty. But it is difficult to do when you are cold, hungry, tired and—most importantly—imprisoned.
After supper he and Taras stop to smoke, looking up at Castle in the fading light. Sometimes Ihor will stare at it for half an hour. Coming from mountains more rounded and worn, he strives to understand the Rockies. His conclusion pains him.
“I can’t find this mountain’s spirit.”
There are many quiet moments of beauty like this one in Blood and Salt.
The men are worked hard, fed poorly and inadequately clothed. The stories they tell each other at night sustain them. They are reminders of their past, the possibility of a better future and of their humanity. Taras tells the story of how he was drafted into the Austrian army and almost certain death, about his love for Halya and his dream of a life with her. Myro, the teacher, tells the story of Taras Shevchenko. It is at this point in Blood and Salt where Sapergia’s own storytelling drifts off course. A different editor might have recognized the fact that while the Ukrainian poet, artist and patriot, Taras Shevchenko, is an interesting historical figure (and yes, the hazy parallels between the real-life Taras and the fictional Taras Kalyna are apparent), having Myro tell this story in such detail was superfluous. It bogged the book down. I was already invested in the fictional Taras and could have done without the history lesson here.
As much as I appreciated the history in this novel, at times the details overwhelmed the story, becoming less of a tapestry and more of a thick, muddy bog. Less is more. For this reader, there were too many places where Sapergia’s background notes showed through the cracks so it seemed as though she was trying to prove that she had done the research. Also there are several archival pictures interspersed throughout this book. Why? When pictures start cropping up in a novel I begin to wonder whether this book might have been better positioned as non-fiction. As a reader of novels, I do not care about the writer’s research—I care about her story. These pictures are something the author could pull out for an interview.
In Blood and Salt, there is plenty of story: sometimes it is brilliant, other times unfocused. And sometimes it is overly laboured. After wading through a section in which a fellow internee, Zmiya, confesses to wanting to kill Taras for taking his job in the old country, I almost closed the book for good. This is an absurd tying up of plot points that really needed no conclusions.
The injustice and hardship of the Ukrainian immigrant experience just before and during World War One are well drawn. The validity of the research is never in question, but its showing at almost every turn is a problem. What the reader really wants to know about the men of Castle Mountain is: Do they live through their internment? Does the boy get the girl in the end? Is there some sort of justice? These are the mysteries that will keep readers going, and the answers are certainly worth the journey. I would have liked this novel more had the author focused on answering these questions.