"Blood and Salt"
After World War I erupts, Taras Kalyna, the protagonist of Saskatoon-based Barbara Sapergia’s "Blood and Salt," endures years in internment camps in western Canada.
The son of a blacksmith, Taras has fled his Ukrainian home with his parents to avoid being pressed into service with the Austrian army. Neither he nor his fellow Ukrainian inmates pose a threat to the Canadian government, which sends men to fight in support of Britain, "the mother country." However, labeled as spies or revolutionaries, these men are deported anyway to "concentration camps for people who were invited to come to Canada."
They are the victims of shallow nationalist sentiments that burst out in the earliest months of the war, a thoughtless shift in social attitudes familiar to readers who lived in post-9/11 America.
Among other concerns, Sapergia’s novel depicts immigrants’ desires, their efforts to acquire a new language and immerse themselves in a foreign culture while retaining — from pictures on their cabin walls to passages of poetry — the traits that define the homeland they will never see again.
That the war unfolds in unimaginable ways in the land they left behind adds mystery and weight to their sense of homelessness. They must define their new identities in a Canadian-sponsored No Man’s Land.
One camp commandant subjects Taras and his fellow inmate Tymko to an icy river torture after they provoke a work stoppage. Some guards ignorantly view the “bohunk” prisoners as enemies. But readers familiar with accounts of Nazi concentration camps may have their assumptions upset by these Canadian guards. Eventually, many empathize with the internees after their months of labor in the snowy landscape, their inadequate diet and their thin clothes. In fact, the men are released before the war ends. This is not a plot spoiler. Most readers would not know of the internment of Ukrainians in Canada between 1915-1917 precisely because they were not exterminated.
Sapergia realistically presents the camaraderie shared by Taras and a few fellow inmates, including Tymko, an inquisitive and optimistic socialist skilled at provoking dialogues. The author sets herself a challenge: Taras is not especially heroic, nor is he a deep thinker. Yet inside the tents near Castle Mountains and the wooden barracks outside Banff, Taras develops his voice. He grips his fellow internees with personal accounts of his Ukrainian village and his desire for Halya, a strong-willed young woman from whom he parted years earlier and whose father despises him.
Initially, Taras’ immediate audience fills in the pauses in his story, anticipating its narrative direction. Sapergia then segues to her third-person omniscient narrator, who details Halya’s experiences after she arrives in Canada: her work for an elderly rich woman, her efforts to deflect an unwanted suitor, her hunger for education in a boarding school, and her increased self-confidence as a writer for a Ukrainian newspaper outside Moose Jaw.
The novel’s pacing speeds up dramatically in its final 75 pages, and not even the shrewdest of readers would anticipate some of its key plot twists.
As we approach the centenary of the start of World War I in August 1914, readers interested in learning about its victims who were not in the trenches in France will find much to admire in the tenacity of Taras, Halya, Tymko and others in Sapergia’s moving "Blood and Salt."
Brian Dillon teaches literature and writing at Montana State University Billings.