Book Review: Blood and Salt by Barbara Sapergia

In her novel, Blood and Salt, Barbara Sapergia explores the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians during the First World War.

Taras Kalyna, a 20-year old Ukrainian-Canadian immigrant in rural Saskatchewan, is torn from his family and friends and sent to the Banff-Castle Mountain internment camp in Alberta. Along with over 8000 prisoners (mostly Ukrainian), Taras must survive extreme physical hardship and the cruel conditions of the primitive internment camp.

Taras and his family came to Canada from a small village in Bukovyna. Despite poverty, servitude to the local pahn (landowner/aristocrat), and the threat of military service for their Austrian rulers, the villagers find strength in family and community. Taras and his family decide to leave for a new life in Canada in order to search for his beloved Halya. Her father Victor moved her to Saskatchewan in order to get her away from Taras.

In Canada, Taras finds work as a bricklayer and starts to look for Halya while his parents work on hard on their new farm. Coincidentally, his employer is in love with Halya, who works for his mother. When he finds out Taras is Halya’s secret love, he reports Taras to the authorities. Taras is arrested and sent to a detention camp in Alberta. His only crime is being born in a country ruled by the Austrian king. He has become a “see-through man.” (p. 3) Ironically, one of the reasons Taras left his village was to get away from serving in the Austrian military.

Eventually, he is interned in the Castle Mountain labour camp in Banff National Park from 1915 to 1917.

The despair of the prisoners is palpable: “Months, maybe years, are being stolen.” (p. 99)

In order to survive the brutal cold, starvation and repetitive days of internment, Taras befriends his fellow prisoners: Yurij, the farmer; Tymko, the socialist; Myroslav, the schoolteacher, and Bohdan, the carver. The group tells stories of their homeland and immigration to Canada on the long, cold nights. Taras tells his friends about his love for Halya and his journey to Canada. Myroslav tells stories about Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s great poet and patriot.

After his release from the camp, Taras must once again make a life for himself. His ordeal has made him a stronger and more independent man. He takes ownership of his life choices as he searches for Halya, and becomes a leader in the labour movement.

Sapergia’s novel is beautifully written in evocative language with sharply focused descriptions of the Canadian environment. The wilderness which surrounds the Castle Mountain internment camp comes alive. Although this novel’s focus is the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during World War I, it is also the epic tale of Ukrainian immigration to Canada during the first decade of the 20th century. The use of Ukrainian words and frequent references to Ukrainian culture bring the reality of Ukrainian life in Canada alive.

The graphic elements of this novel are also intriguing. The novel’s cover photo shows a group of poorly dressed men trying to get warm on a very cold day in the forest. This is an actual photograph which is housed in the archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. The strips of white dividing the photograph help readers to understand the individual isolation and dehumanizing influence of imprisonment which must have haunted the prisoners in this “Canadian Gulag.”

Although the novel’s plot moves toward its ultimate conclusion with dignity and hope, the lengthy passages about Taras Shevchenko and the quest for Ukrainian cultural and political independence, can at times be distracting for the reader. Also, Sapergia lapses into lengthy philosophical passages about racism and cultural heritage.

Born and raised in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Barbara Sapergia is a fiction writer, dramatist and editor. Her previous books have included Dry, Secrets in Water and South Hill Girls. She has had nine professional play productions and is the co-creator of the children’s television series Prairie Berry Pie. Blood and Salt has been nominated for the Kobzar Literary Award which will be presented in Toronto on March 5, 2014.

– Myra Junyk

Sapergia, Barbara.

Coteau Books, 2012. 423 p. ISBN 978-1-55050-513-9

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