Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Kobzar's Children

By Aussiegirl

Kobzar's Children: A Century of Untold Ukrainian stories
Edited by: Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006, 199 pages

In the introduction to this collection of short historical fiction, memoirs and poems touching upon a century of the history of Ukrainian immigrant experience, Marsha Skrypuch writes the following:

"When you don't write your own stories, others will write them for you."

And in publishing this marvelous collection of stories she begins the process of putting the record straight. Like Marsha, I too grew up with the realization that I belonged essentially to an invisible and completely unknown ethnic group -- Ukrainians, whom no one seemed to have ever heard of, and if they had, they said things like -- "That's the same as Russian, isn't it?"

As Marsha explains in the foreword, the kobzars were Ukraine's blind, wandering minstrels, who in the ancient tradition of Homer memorized long epic historical poems that spoke of the great events of Ukrainian history, and in doing so kept a population that was largely illiterate in touch with their great heritage.

During Stalin's times they kept people apprised of the repressions and persecutions and famine in addition to their traditional role, and so they came to the notice of Josef Stalin, who called for a national conference of kobzars. Hundreds showed up, and all were shot. There are a few kobzars who survived to tell the tale, and a very few who carry on the tradition today.

Because Marsha does not speak Ukrainian, she did not have access to emigre literature that spoke of the immigrant experience, and of experiences in Ukraine. But Ukrainians are inveterate story tellers, and as fortune would have it, the writers of these tales are either witnesses themselves to the events they describe, or are children of parents who told vivid tales of their own experiences, and as such the works have a compelling and hypnotic interest.

I couldn't put the book down. I frankly had expected a charming work aimed at children, but how mistaken I was. Although this book is suitable for all ages capable of reading at this level, it is of no less interest to the adult reader as to the young reader. It never talks down to its audience. In the same way that I remember my own parents relating the many stories of our family, no punches are pulled. Harsh reality and horror and danger take their place alongside tales of humor, childhood pranks and misunderstandings.

Beginning in the early part of the century, the stories span everything from a memoir of homesteading in the early 1900's in the wilds of western Canada, to a first-hand horrifying account of a young child's suffering and survival during the Stalin-created Ukrainian famine genocide of 1933, in which at least seven million Ukrainians perished. Tales of helping out in a family grocery store take their place alongside a psychologically insightful meditation on the interior life of an elderly Ukrainian woman living in her memories while confined to a nursing home. One of the stories relates the shocking history of how Ukrainians were unjustly interned in hard labor camps by the Canadian government during WWI, and subjected to treatment that is sadly reminiscent of Soviet gulags. This is a chapter of immigrant history I knew absolutely nothing about. There's a delightful tale about the tragicomedy of attempts to move the grave of one family member from one cemetery to another, followed by a grim personal memoir of surviving Auschwitz. The stories span a century of experience, beginning in the early 1900's and ending with a charming Christmas time tale that takes place during the exciting days of the Orange Revolution.

Ukrainians do not talk down to their children. We do not protect them from the harsh realities of history and of repression. Perhaps this is why Americans and Canadians of Ukrainian descent are generally highly sensitive to any encroachments upon their freedoms and dangers gathering in the world. We have experienced, if not first-hand, then through the tales of our parents, the kinds of things that can happen if people forget their history.

As such, Marsha Skrypuch has done a great service by publishing this book. Not only has she introduced the literature and history of Ukraine to immigrants who may no longer be in touch with the language of their ancestors, but also she exposes the stories of these people to a wider American and Canadian audience.

This book must and will, by its very nature, find a wide audience. It is gripping, well-written, well-balanced, and paced with a mixture of lighter and darker topics, and in the end is a testament to the basic humanity that binds us all into one common human experience.

History comes alive when we read about the lives of individuals. What once existed only as a page in a history book or a phrase with a date attached, suddenly becomes a gripping personal drama that anyone can identify with.

Buy this book, read it. You don't have to be Ukrainian to thoroughly enjoy it and to profit by it. We are all enriched by enlarging our knowledge of history and the very human stories that make up that history.

The kobzars indeed live, and this book carries on that great Ukrainian tradition. Every country needs its kobzars.


At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Kobzar Genocide by Stalin is one of the great unknow tragedies of all time.

Don't buy a single book!

Buy two and give one to a child that you love.

At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just ordered 3 copies. Sounds like a great book of a tragic people whose history should NEVER be forgotten, lest it be repeated.
For those unfamiliar with the Scots-Irish in America I suggest "Born Fighting", a history of my group who were the backbone of the American revolution and the dominant culture in the American military for 250 years.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Marsha Skrypuch said...

Hey Aussiegirl,

I'm delighted that you love Kobzar's Children. I am in awe of the contributors' writing talents and the breadth of the stories they've written.

Thank you!


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