Inspiring and Uninspired
- Myrna Kostash (Author)
All of Baba's Children. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Editor)
Kobzar's Children: A Century of Untold Ukrainian Stories. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa Grekul
All of Baba’s Children, first published in 1977 (by Hurtig) and re-released in 1992 (by NeWest), launched Myrna Kostash’s career as one of Canada’s foremost writers of creative non-fiction and as, arguably, the best known contemporary Ukrainian Canadian author. Written in the probing journalistic style that she would hone in her later work, the book explores the history of Two Hills, a predominantly Ukrainian Canadian community in Alberta. Kostash divides the text into sixteen chapters, each focused on a different aspect of Two Hills’ past (“Emigration,” “The Homestead,” “Politics,” “Mythologies”), combining information from archives and academic sources with first-hand insights and observations (she lived in Two Hills for four months in 1975, during which she interviewed many long-time residents). Not unlike some of her later work—Bloodlines, most notably—All of Baba’s Children opens with Kostash’s confession that her decision to write it was a “surprise”: “[o]f all the things to write about,” she asks, “why would I choose the Ukrainian-Canadians? I did not feel particularly attached to their community; I did not speak Ukrainian; lessons in Ukrainian history and literature had made no impression.” Yet it is precisely Kostash’s insider/outsider-ness vis-à-vis the Ukrainian community—her status as a second-generation “ethnic,” relatively disconnected from her roots—that enables her to provide compelling and controversial commentary not only on the Ukrainian community in and around Two Hills but also on ethnic identity in Canada more generally.
Indeed, while residents of Two Hills were overwhelmingly delighted that a writer (one of “their own,” no less) had written a book about their community (other readers, too, from across the country, thanked Kostash for retrieving “their history” from the “margins of official ethnic history”), All of Baba’s Children caused a stir when it was first published because of its radical perspective on both national identity (questioning the celebratory rhetoric of multiculturalism, exposing the lingering aftermath of assimilation) and Ukrainian Canadians’ experiences in Canada. As George Melnyk explains in his foreword to the 1992 edition, the book garnered “immediate national attention”; not all reviews, however, were positive. Some Ukrainian Canadians, angered by Kostash’s discussions of sexism, anti-Semitism, and communism in the Ukrainian Canadian community, “attacked [her] for having aired the community’s dirty laundry in public.” But regardless of the varied responses it received, Melnyk is right when he draws attention to how the book “engages its audience,” making it “difficult to be detached when reading All of Baba’s Children.” He is right, too, when he refers to the text as a “manifesto yet to be surpassed.”
Kobzar’s Children, by contrast, an anthology of short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry by twelve, primarily emergent, Ukrainian Canadian writers, promises much more than it delivers. In fact, technical inconsistencies will leave readers confused about what exactly the collection promises. The title, for example, on the front cover of the book (Kobzar’s Children: A Century of Untold Ukrainian Stories) is quite different from the title provided on the copyright page (Kobzar’s Children: A Century of Stories by Ukrainians). And while the Library of Congress summary of the anthology suggests that the collection “chronicles the lives and struggles of Ukrainian immigrants during the past century,” this isn’t strictly true: neither Skrypuch’s “The Rings,” for instance, nor Stefan Petelycky’s “Auschwitz: Many Circles of Hell” is an immigrant story, and several other selections explore the experiences of second- and third-generation Ukrainian Canadians. Tracing a rough chronology of Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian history (topics include homesteading in Canada, internment during the First World War, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, the Orange Revolution), the anthology contains photographs, both “historical” and contemporary (one photo per selection). Readers may be distracted, however, from the writing itself as they ponder the purpose of those photographs which have little, if anything, to do with the selections that they accompany (the randomly-placed photograph of the “Caruk sisters of Pine River,” taken in 1930, is just one example; it bears no relation to any piece in the anthology).
While not without accomplished contributions (Olga Prychodko’s “A Home of Her Own” and Larry Warwaruk’s “Bargain” stand out), Kobzar’s Children is not the showcase of groundbreaking, provocative contemporary Ukrainian Canadian writing that it could have been. Some scholarly readers may lament the fact that, in choosing contributors from her “email critique group” (most of them novice writers), Skrypuch overlooked the most senior, established Ukrainian Canadian authors (Kostash, Janice Kulyk Keefer), the most exciting new voices (Martha Blum, Anthony Bidulka), and mid-career writers like Marusya Bociurkiw, Sonja Greckol, and Nancy Holmes. Having said this, as a writer, I can appreciate that Kobzar’s Children is not directed at an audience of academics: it is instead intended to motivate readers to find their voices and write their stories (“[w]hen you don’t write your own stories, others will write their versions for you”). Yet precisely because the anthology seeks to encourage readers to become writers, selecting more sophisticated and more polished—in short, more inspiring—writing would have made sense.
And insofar as Skrypuch aims to introduce new readers (aged 14 and up) to Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian history, the most serious shortcoming of Kobzar’s Children is that these readers will come away from the book—from the editor’s preface, in particular—with a sloppy perspective on its subject matter. According to Skrypuch, for example, the kobzars (the “blind, wandering minstrels of Ukraine”) were massacred by Stalin’s regime in the 1930s, along with “Ukrainian journalists, artists, novelists, and playwrights”—and, she goes on to explain, “[a]s the storytellers of Ukraine died, the stories died too.” This oversimplification of Ukrainian history, which suggests that the production of Ukrainian literature abruptly ended in the 1930s, disregards the lively literary community in Ukraine, and Skrypuch’s notion that Ukrainian Canadians shoulder the responsibility of filling the ostensible void in Ukrainian storytelling overlooks not only writers in Ukraine but also the large number of diasporic writers based in such countries as the United States, England, and Australia. The editor’s claim, moreover, that Ukrainians who came to Canada to “escape the Stalin terror” (third-wave immigrants) “were farmers, pharmacists, engineers, and coal miners”—but “not writers”—is simply not correct: the “third wave” included a large number of intellectuals, many of them writers. Unfortunately, in the absence of better research on the part of the editor, readers who have little or no prior knowledge of Ukrainian or Ukrainian Canadian history will come away from this anthology misinformed about both.
In the short term, Kobzar’s Children may well endear itself to the jury of the newly-established Kobzar Literary Award (sponsored by the Shevchenko Foundation) and to members of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (which will receive all royalties from the book). But whereas All of Baba’s Children remains an essential text for students of Canadian, as well as Ukrainian Canadian, history and literature, Skrypuch’s collection is unlikely to make a similarly substantial and enduring impact on readers, Ukrainian Canadian or otherwise.
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MLA: Grekul, Lisa. Inspiring and Uninspired. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 3 July 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 145 - 147)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.