The StarPhoenix Review - Blood and Salt
The Star Phoenix
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
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.