CM . . . . Volume XX Number 3 . . . . September 20, 2013
To Andrei, there's no question that Brovko is just as precious as the icons, shawls, and carefully-chosen family belongings which the Baydas take with them. But, to everyone else, he's just a dog, and so Brovko is left behind. He ponders the possibilities open to him – living like the local hermit, surviving as a lone wolf does (because, after all, he is "relative to sheepdogs, hunting dogs, circus dogs, and if he goes back far enough in years – to wolves"). In the meantime, he heads for the barn of the Baydas' former neighbours, the Holochuks. Their older daughter, Tekla, is fond of him, and soon Brovko has a new home.
When he's not helping to herd the cows, Brovko plans how he might get to Canada, and when he learns that the Holochuks also plan to emigrate, he has to figure out how he'll make the trip as well. He's certain that, if Andrei didn't take him to Canada, the Holochuks won't either. How will he manage to get on the right train and then board the correct ship in Hamburg? Well, special assistance comes in the form of the local hermit and holy man, a "starets" (translated literally, "a very old man") who makes Brovko a special collar out of black cloth, embroidered in golden thread with the figures of horses. Horses were precious to the Scythians, an ancient people who inhabited Ukraine, and this collar is a connection with that past. The hermit also has a connection with Andrei's grandfather; last year, he gave Dido (i.e. "Grandfather") Bayda a golden cup which seemed to have mystical powers. However, last December, in the midst of a raging prairie blizzard, the cup sank into an icy river, a mishap which almost drowned Andrei.
Of course, in the best tradition of all great animal stories, Brovko does undertake the journey to Canada. He charms his way onto the right train, accompanies a kobzar on his travels in Ukraine (the kobzars were blind singer/storytellers whose tales maintained much of Ukraine's folk traditions); he makes friends with the Kopkos, another family en route to Canada; saves their little daughter, Hannah, who almost drowns when swept overboard into the North Atlantic; and finally, arrives in Canada with the Kopkos, settling just north of Dauphin, MB. But, the story of the golden cup (continued by the kobzar), and Brovko's need to find Andrei, impels him on the long trek west to the plains of Batoche, Saskatchewan, where the Baydas, along with many other Ukrainian families, now homestead.
A porcupine attack temporarily obliterates Brovko's all-important sense of smell, but an inexplicable force sends him in the direction of a riverbank. He digs feverishly in the sand, sensing the presence of the gold cup of legend. Exhausted, he finally collapses; then, amazingly, a bear he had just encountered a few hours ago drags him to the log cabin of another hermit. This man, a Cree "starets" named Snow Walker, nurses his wounds, and a healed Brovko finally completes his journey, re-uniting with Andrei and finding the golden cup. And, he also finds potential romance with Brovka, Andrei's "Canadian" dog. Is there a sequel in the works?
As a child, I never much liked animal stories, was terrified of dogs (big ones still scare me), and as a young teacher of junior school ELA, positively loathed having to teach Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey. For that reason, I decided to invite Melanie Smilski, avid reader, animal-lover, and a Grade 6 student (the same age as Andrei) at St. Demetrius Catholic School in Etobicoke, ON, to read and respond to the story of Brovko. Her comments will be presented in italics.
Despite not being a "dog person", Brovko was certainly a real character for me. Melanie commented that "a characteristic that I liked best about Brovko was his loyalty to Andrei; they were miles and miles apart, but Brovko still got back to Andrei." In contrast, I found most of the humans in the story a bit two-dimensional and less fully-developed than the animal hero of the tale. Melanie found some characters notable, in particular, "Mr.Kopko, because at first, he was hesitant about keeping Brovko, but in the end he came around and helped Brovko get to Canada." As a story of the immigration experience, the book certainly makes clear how difficult it was for those who left small rural villages in Ukraine. They bade farewell to family and friends, boarded trains, and then ships, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, after which they traveled on the CPR to wherever fate led them. Melanie noted that for these Ukrainian farmers, "things were very expensive back then. Things like a train ticket or a boat ride were so expensive that some people them (such as Andrei's family ) couldn't even afford to take a dog with them." The description of the transport ship's steerage - the lurching and smelly quarters of third-class passengers - reminded me of my own grandfather's (and Melanie's great-grandfather's) account of his passage to Canada. Homesteading on the prairies was arduous, and Warwaruk depicts the tasks of breaking ground, farming, and making a living in a new land. Warwaruk also tries to give a sense of the importance of sustaining cultural identity through the description of festivals and Ukrainian customs which early immigrants maintained, especially in rural areas. Although a participant in Ukrainian cultural activities in her home city, Melanie noted that "there were lots of celebrations in the book that I've never heard of and I thought that was pretty cool." Although many Ukrainian words were transliterated and explained in context, I think that a glossary and, especially, a pronunciation guide would have been helpful.
However, both of us thought that so much of this story requires a hugely willing suspension of disbelief. The bond between man and dog has a literary tradition going all the way back to Homer's Odyssey, and the movies have told many a tale of canine heroism. Because the book is a "prequel" to Andrei and the Snow Walker, we know that Brovko and Andrei will be re-united, but some of the coincidences necessary to make it happen stretched my and Melanie's credibility. Melanie noted that "there were some things that didn't make sense, such as when Brovko was on the train with the Kopko's family, the person that was collecting tickets saw that Brovko was there and didn't kick him off; he just asked for a hat in return. That would not actually happen." We both agreed that "the age group that would most likely read this would range from about 7-12" and for readers of Andrei and the Snow Walker who might have wondered what happened to Andrei's dog (although Melanie thought that "the references to Andrei and the Snow Walker were very minor so it doesn't really get you all that excited for the book.") To a lesser degree, Brovko's Amazing Journey also offers a portrait of nineteenth century life for those Ukrainians who came to Canada and farmed the rich black prairie soil so reminiscent of their native land. But, mostly, it's about Brovko and his incredible journey across two continents and one big ocean. As for a final recommendation, I'll give Melanie the last word: "I would rate it a 3, because it wasn't absolutely amazing, but it wasn't atrociously bad, either."
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB, while Melanie Smilski is a Grade 6 student at St. Demetrius Catholic School in Etobicoke, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.