Tuesday, January 05, 2010
Lysenko's Yellow Boots
Yellow Boots / Vera Lysenko
NeWest, 1992, c1954.
After all that list-making it is time to read a few of the books on the lists! I've begun with Yellow Boots, a classic of Ukrainian Canadian literature.
This is the story of Lilli Landash, a young Ukrainian living in Manitoba in the 1930s. She has ten brothers and sisters, and is considered a 'gypsy' girl: born at twilight and looking a little different she is not nurtured by her parents, rather she is sent out to work in her aunt's home from the age of six. After five years of service she becomes ill, so ill that her death seems imminent, and that is where our story begins. Lilli is taken back to her parents home, and fights the odds, surviving and living with her parents from then on. However, she is still not a favoured child, and does much of the work around the house. She is known as Gypsy until her one year of schooling, where the Scottish teacher, overwhelmed by all the Ukrainian Marys in his class, renames them all for flowers, and Gypsy becomes Lily (or Lilli as she misspells it). Her special love is the prairies, though - she loves to be outside and is rapturous over the beauties of sky and birds and sounds. She is extremely musical and this is what leads her to her future.
Each chapter describes a cultural event, as well as following Lilli's growth toward adulthood. For example, the first chapter when Lilli is so ill is also used as a way in which to explain traditional death rituals of the Bukovynian (Ukrainian) family. They have a Christmas in one chapter, a wedding in another, a funeral in a third. While this does feel a little forced, it is still full of fascinating information, revealed in a way that draws you in via all your senses. The book also has a proto-feminist feel, with Lilli knowing in her heart that she is meant to grow and succeed, not to follow her father's orders and marry an old and lascivious neighbour at the age of sixteen in order to secure more farmland. She flees the farm, moving to Winnipeg and making it as a singer, drawing together the opportunity that the new world offers with the love of tradition and her Bukovynian past, by singing traditional songs. She also learns the songs of other cultures she comes across in Winnipeg - a Yiddish tune, a Japanese lullaby. She is the example of the perfect multicultural immigrant, willing to meld her lifestyle with the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture while preserving the arts of her own. Other women's issues appear in the story - the plight of servant girls in the city, the status of a widow in the small town, and so on.
The story is engrossing for all the detail of farming in those communities - the small mindedness and superstition as well as the generosity and the hard, hard work that was expected of all. However, it was written in the fifties, and the author's multicultural idealism does show through. The change in the communities as they become more "Canadian" is clear, but Lilli does her best to retain some of the tradition through her songs. When, as a successful adult, she returns to the farm, her mother is described as wearing a house dress from a department store, and the younger girls wished to prepare a meal for Lilli using canned food and store bought ingredients on the new stove - it was her mother who knew that Lilli would prefer a true Bukovynian meal made in the old fashioned way. Since Lilli has only been away from the farm for seven years, it does seem a bit odd that all the Ukrainian habits of her family have vanished so quickly.
I wouldn't say that it is fantastically successful as a novel, but as a social document showing a possible life of that time it does prove intriguing. Lilli is a good character, full of self-analysis, ambition, talent and grit. Her absorption in beauty and in music are revealing, and her constant observation of everything around her from the point of view of the outsider creates a detailed look at a way of life which was already gone by the time this book was written. I found the first part of the book most interesting, with Lilli surrounded by her traditional family and all the habits they held. Once Lilli moves into Winnipeg, the interest shifts and we are seeing the integration of many different cultures into one big city. The role of women in this era is in evidence, across many social levels: the author was from a poor background and she held fairly socialist political views, which is apparent in the way she discusses issues from the viewpoint of the poor characters - the farm girls, the maids - as well as the matrons of the city. (She was also falsely accused of being a Communist during the Cold War Era when it was a real issue, and it stuck to her for quite a long time).
There are a few elements of the book that I found uncomfortable from my modern perspective - including the idea that Lilli could only escape from her overbearing father through the intervention of other men, like her schoolteacher, or the choirmaster she meets in Winnipeg. And I wasn't too keen on the conclusion; it was as if Lysenko didn't know quite how to end it and married Lilli off because that is what a "happy ending" should look like. Nonetheless, this is a great piece of Canadiana that should be considered part of the historical record along with better known novels of that era.