Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko.
Grades 1 - 5 / Ages 6 - 10.
In a land called Bukovyna, in Ukraine, a husband and wife farmed their narrow strip of land. Each morning, Ivan strapped the plough to his shoulders while Anna guided the plough through the rich black furrows of soil. "It takes two of us," Ivan would say "one to push the plough and one to pull."With this early reference to the hard work which defines life for Ivan and Anna, Skrypuch begins a tale of hardship and perserverance. Silver Threads explores the personal and political realities facing emigrants from Ukraine in the early twentieth century. Fleeing conscription into the army of the "foreign emperor," many were attracted by the promise of 160 acres of homestead land in Canada. The realities of life in Canada, however, were sometimes grim. Shipboard life and transportation were difficult; The Dominion Lands Act required that a portion of each quarter section be broken each year, irrespective of drought or, in the case of the parklands, the fact that the lot was heavily treed; and an atmosphere of official distrust led to the internment of Ukrainian men during the years of World War I.
In Silver Threads, Skrypuch adds another story to the growing collection of illustrated war narratives which introduce and interpret difficult issues to a juvenile audience. (These include Coerr's Sadako, as illustrated by Young, Rose Blanche, by Innocenti, and Forman's War Boy, to name a few.) Skrypuch has tackled a complicated sequence of events in her book and, in choosing an illustrated format, is not able to fully develop her characters and their experiences. The author has to compress historical conditions, such as the expansion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, homestead regulations, conscription and internment, into her text. In this format, Skrypuch has little choice other than to personify all of the abuses of the Canadian government into one "barrel-bellied" official. Older readers will crave a fuller representation and younger readers will need considerable interpretation.
In order to explore Ivan and Anna's loyalty and faith within an unfriendly world, the author uses the traditional Christmas celebration as a base. Within this context, Skrypuch adds a fantasy element, reminiscent of Cobweb Christmas, involving a spider. Magic, faith and Christmas are a happy blend, but without a base in folklore or a clearer understanding of Ivan's spider ritual, the plot shifts into new territory too suddenly. A longer text, with more background on the political times, traditions and characters would have benefitted here. Skrypuch adds in an historical note that her own grandfather was among the interned. Perhaps a novel will be forthcoming which will expand upon this powerful experience.
Michael Martchenko, best known as the illustrator of Robert Munsch's picture books, adopts a sombre yet beautiful style in Silver Threads. The wild abandon and extravagance of Moira's Birthday, and Something Good are replaced by a serious study of the Ukrainian immigrant experience. His illustrations of Anna and Ivan are vibrant and strong, with the red of Anna's head scarf providing a link throughout. Martchenko accurately records the traditional clothing of Ukraine as well as the uniforms of World War I. His detaiI is meticulous even to the portrait of King George V on the walls of the conscription office. He also provides a view of the parklands of western Canada with their heavy tree cover. Silver Threads is a beautifully designed book which includes additional illustrations of shipboard life and barbed wire enclosures which expand the readers' experience of the time period.
Silver Threads interprets a powerful personal experience in the light of extraordinary events in the world and on the domestic front. Librarians building Canadiana, western Canadiana and multicultural collections will want this book on their shelves.
Recommended with reservations, The author has used an illustrated format to explore the Ukrainian immigrant experience of the early twentieth century. The choice of format limits the presentation to the detriment of character development.
Recommended with reservations
Jennifer Johnson works as a children's librarian in Ottawa, Ontario.
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Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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