Finding St. Demetrius

Reviewed by Lindy Ledohowski

On picking up Myrna Kostash’s Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, I thought I knew what to expect. I expected the story of a prodigal daughter: a feminist retelling of the parable of the lost son who finds home again, written in Kostash’s pioneering creative non-fiction style, likely with some forthrightness about desire as in her The Doomed Bridegroom and a left-leaning stance in keeping with Kostash’s progressive ideals. After all, in their 2002 interview with her, Sneja Gunew, Margery Fee, and Lisa Grekul call Kostash a “Ukrainian Canadian Non-Fiction Prairie New Leftist Feminist Canadian Nationalist,” and I knew all of this. I knew about Kostash’s groundbreaking study of Canadian-born Ukrainian Canadians across the prairies All of Baba’s Children, which has never been out of print since its first publication in 1977; I knew about Kostash’s travel memoirs from the 1990s, both Bloodlines and The Doomed Bridegroom, that weave narratives of Eastern Europe and large socio-political struggles into something very personal and intimate; and I was very familiar with Kostash’s writing style, at times pithy and wry and at others heart-wrenchingly earnest. Armed with all I knew about Kostash, I made assumptions about Prodigal Daughter.

I was wrong.

Prodigal Daughter is both like and unlike anything Kostash has written before, and I think it may just be her best book to date.

Prodigal Daughter unfolds as a historical exploration into the origins of St. Demetrius of the Eastern Orthodox Church. While Kostash journeys to the Balkans to research the mythology, cults, rituals, and hagiography of St. Demetrius in all its complicated and competing variations, she explores more than Church history or ideology. By focusing on the Balkans, that place where “east” meets “west,” she begins to unpack some of the most complicated strands of ethnic identity informing twentieth- and twenty-first-century geopolitics. Who are the “cultured” Byzantines? Who are the “barbaric” Slavs? Indeed, who is she? In asking these questions as she engages in her journey-cum-investigation, she begs her reader to ask those very same questions about the assumptions we make about nationalism, ethnicity, language, and ultimately religion.

For at its heart, Kostash’s journey into discovering who and what St. Demetrius may be—both in a historical and contemporary sense—is a shockingly honest and open articulation of a spiritual quest, one that is rich with possibilities.

Ultimately, this book ends up being about possibilities, because Kostash does not find clear, historical truth about the St. Demetrius whose trail the book follows down twisting corridors and dead-end hallways. Instead, the final chapter of the book offers two mutually exclusive imaginings of Demetrius, both equally plausible and equally significant. The juxtaposition of these two stories offers us a world of possibilities that lie amidst all that is unknown and indeterminate, posing the question whether or not Kostash (and her readers) are ready to take a proverbial leap of faith.

This review “Finding St. Demetrius” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 180-81.

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