I did this review over a year ago when Shandi Mitchell’s fine novel was published in hard cover. Now, I want to repost it for anyone who missed it then. Now it is available in trade paper. It is a must read.
I’ve been picking this book up and putting it down for a month now. Finally, I decided to read it. After thirty pages, I knew I had found a really good one. Shandi Mitchell has written a deep and heart-rending tale of family, greed, strength, and weakness. Where she pulls this from is beyond me. What I do know is that I could not put this novel down. It is awesome in its starkness. Alan Drew, the author of “Gardens of Water” would call it harsh. It almost tore my heart out.
Shandi Mitchell starts her austere novel in 1933, in a little town in Alberta, Canada, really a tiny outpost of sorts in this most Northern area of Western Canada. Then the novel moves back and forth in and out of the years, ending in 1939. This is a novel written in many voices. There are plenty of well established authors out there who wouldn’t even attempt this, but Mitchell not only does it well, she snags into your psyche and quickly reels you into the world she has created; a world filled with coldness and cruelty, madness and bitterness. It is a timeless story of family and a mother’s love. The voices of the children ring true and strong giving substance to their characters and life to their world.
Two families have bled almost entirely into one as the story begins. Anna and her two children are living in the big house on the property while Maria and her five children are living in the stock shed behind. Maria’s husband, Teodor, has been unfairly dragged off to prison for stealing his own grain. Anna’s husband is nowhere to be found for now, so there are two women struggling to keep themselves and their children alive. The homestead is in Anna’s name but Teodor has been working the land and bringing in all the income. All of it.
The story really begins when Teodor arrives home suddenly from prison. He shows up filthy and looking skeletal in the noon sun. No one recognizes him. Not even his children. But Teodor thrives after weeks of working the fields and eating regular, if scant, meals. Then Stefan, Anna’s husband, returns. And the story is cranked up yet another notch.
Teodor is shown as a bitter man who feels betrayed and can never get a break. But he is willing to start over. He works hard. He loves his family. They all begin to feel the weight of the world being slightly lifted from their scrawny shoulders. But even as the author is showing this, I am tensing up, knowing something awful most be coming. And it is.
It’s not often we see a family so torn, lifted up over and over, only to be slammed back down. Even though some of the content is hard to read, I found myself riveted to it like someone watching a train wreck, if you may.
The writing is superb. The characters are brought vividly alive through the voices given them. The descriptions of the landscapes, the nature of the animals, the research done to perfection, all make for a novel you will not be able to forget or put down.
I am thrilled to report that Shandi Mitchell is working on a new novel. Thank Goodness.