Blood and Salt, Barbara Sapergia
Coteau Books, 423 pages
On a hot summer night in 1915, a passenger train filled with Ukrainian immigrants rolls westward through the Canadian Prairies. The train is heading for the Castle-Mountain Banff Internment Camp, and none of the men on the train know why they are there. Certainly not Taras Kalyna, barely twenty, who followed his love, Halya, when her family emigrated to rural Saskatchewan. Only a short while ago, Taras and his parents were making a new life for themselves, building a home, working the land, and finding steady employment in town. The Canadian government then decided that Ukrainians, coming from a region ruled by Austria, posed a threat during wartime and should be contained for the duration. His freedom gone, Taras now sits on a train that is carrying him to a prison camp in the Rocky Mountains.
Taras lives at the camp for two years. The men rise early and spend their days hacking away at the mountains to clear out a path for the Trans-Canada Highway. It is hard work, made even more difficult by austere living conditions and lack of decent food. Fortunately for Taras, he quickly befriends the other men in his bunkhouse, and at night, they tell stories. Myro relates the adventures of the celebrated painter and poet Taras Shevchenko, who dreamt, above all else, of a free Ukraine, and Taras tells how he came to be separated from the beautiful Halya and his plans to find her when the imprisonment is over. Through the power of storytelling, the men discover their capacity to speak out against injustice and create a better situation for everyone.
Told in a wonderfully conversational voice, Blood and Salt effectively exposes the atrocity of Canadian internment camps while reflecting on the importance of love, freedom and national identity. This compelling story will appeal to those who enjoyed the themes in Obasan by Joy Kogawa and Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, and also to readers of well-written historical fiction set in Canada.