Blood and Salt Review - Prairie Books NOW

Reviewed by: Bev Sandell Greenberg

Blood on Our Hands

Canadian Labour Camps the Focus of New Novel

The subject of her latest novel, Blood and Salt, is an important Canadian story - one that had mainly been forgotten, says Saskatoon author and playwright Barbara Sapergia.

During World War I, the Canadian government imprisoned nearly 8,000 people as "illegal aliens" and sent them to forced labour camps from coast to coast.

The novel is a fictional account of a group of Ukrainian male immigrants in one of those camps in Alberta. The book includes photographs taken of the Banff-Castle Mountain camp and the men confined there.

Sapergia first heard about the camps on a trip to Ukraine in 1996 when she was doing research for a script. A few years later, she came upon a book called In the Shadow of the Rockies: Diary of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, 1915-1917, which contained annotated logs of the Banff-Castle Mountain camp.

"I now had a source of the daily details of camp life," she says. "As I began to see how to approach the material, the reasons why I wanted to write a novel became clearer. I believe people need to know their own stories, however painful they may be."

At the outset of the novel, it is 1915. The protagonist Taras is travelling to the camp by train from Saskatchewan. A few months earlier, he came to Canada to avoid conscription in the Russian army and to search for his girlfriend Halya. She had already immigrated with her father, who disapproved of Taras. 

At the camp, the men must clear the bush and build a road from Banff to Lake Louise. Late at night in the bunkhouse, they converse about politics, the past, and Ukrainian heroes like Shevchenko. Taras's ongoing stories about his problematic relationship with Halya captivate the men, and they look forward to hearing more. Listening to the stories helps make life more bearable for the men.

The novel's lucid narrative alternates between daily life in the camp and the men's memories of Ukraine. "As for the plot," Sapergia adds, "I had to discover it as I went along. I was pleased to find a few surprises along the way."

As well, Sapergia wanted to emphasize some unique aspects of the Ukrainian immigration experience. "I tried to show how diverse Ukrainians were. Canadians tend to think they were all farmers, but many came to work in industrial jobs. In both cases, Canada needed these people's labour, but had not yet recognized their rights to become respected and equal citizens."

Sapergia hopes that the book will appear to all fiction readers, especially Ukrainian Canadians.

"The novel is about history and injustice, and it's also a love story. My character Taras comes of age in the camp and never forgets his love, Halya. The camp gives him time to consider what happens when one group has far too much power over another, a theme which resonates in our history."

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Prairie books NOW

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