November 4, 2013
Review By Duff Sutherland
Bill Stenson’s Svoboda is a coming-of-age novel set in the West Kootenay during the 1950s. Vasili Saprikin is a Doukhobor who spends most of his earliest years with his mother (a widow) and grandfather in a communal village in Shoreacres on the Kootenay River. A sweet-singing Freedomite bomber from the village, George Lazaroff, has charmed Vasili’s mother Anuta. However, she breaks off the relationship when Vasili blows up a chicken coop (and nearly himself) with a gasoline bomb he had learned to make by watching Lazaroff construct his own bombs. This early turning point in the novel lets us know that these radical activities do not reflect the quiet Doukhobor faith of Anuta and her father Alexay.
Life for Vasili and his mother and grandfather takes another dramatic turn when rcmp officers remove Vasili from his family for not attending school. The provincial government sends him to the residential school at New Denver, which was established as part of its forced assimilation policy for Freedomite children. Vasili’s three years in the school are lonely and unhappy ones, although a few teachers open up for him a world of books and learning. One young girl, Polly, escapes the harsh reality of life in the school by dreaming that a ship will come to Slocan Lake to take the Doukhobors back to Russia. Vasili, on the other hand, escapes through reading.
Stenson’s descriptions evoke the sadness, regimentation, and brutality of life for the children at New Denver. As is well known, provincial officials allowed parents and relatives to visit the inmates for an hour every other Sunday. The sensitive Vasili is painfully aware of the children’s anger and emotion on Mondays after visiting day. Through all of this, the novel points to the harshness of the forced assimilation policy. It also points out that rcmp officers and teachers at the school could be kind and decent to the children. When the school closes in 1956, for example, the teachers take great care to place Vasili in the proper grade in the high school in Nelson.
The latter part of Svoboda focuses on Vasili’s and his mother’s and grandfather’s efforts to build a new life in Nelson in the 1950s. A local entrepreneur, Jim Sellers, recognizes Anuta’s skills as a worker and eventually makes her manager of Hipperson’s Hardware Store. As time goes on, Anuta and Sellers’ business relationship blossoms into a romantic one. In the meantime, Vasili excels at Nelson High School. He enjoys his classes and works hard to fit in by dressing like everyone else, by drinking beer with his friend Kenny, and by dancing in a pub on Saturday nights in the nearby community of Proctor.
Vasili also becomes reacquainted with his childhood friend from Shoreacres, Lara Inikova. By the late 1950s, Lara and her family have almost entirely assimilated into the Anglo-Canadian society of Nelson. Her parents rarely speak Russian at home, and she wears the latest fashions and enjoys Betty Crocker cakes and Swanson TV Dinners. Although Vasili also works hard to fit in, he does not forget the Doukhobor heritage taught to him by his grandfather. We see this when Vasili organizes and leads a student delegation to a peace conference at the University of British Columbia. At the same time, Vasili’s Doukhoborism takes the form of the quiet faith of his mother and grandfather rather than the radical beliefs of Walter and Sam, his fellow students from New Denver, who demand that he help them burn down the Nelson high school. Vasili refuses.
Svoboda brings together its themes of change and continuity in the concluding chapters. Anuta completes her journey from the Doukhobor communal village in Shoreacres to the broader world of Nelson with the academic success of her son, which she has done much to achieve, and her planned marriage to Jim Sellers. Vasili makes love to the very modern Lara on the floor of the dry cleaners in Nelson while her boyfriend Arnold spins in an industrial-sized dryer. Vasili also looks forward to journeying to the wider world of Vancouver and to attending university. Finally, Vasili’s grandfather apparently completes the cycle of his life, which has taken him from Russia under the tsar to Doukhobor communal villages in Saskatchewan and British Columbia and on to Nelson, where he disappears on a trip to “heaven” in a plane of his own construction. Alexay’s strange end somehow seems fitting as it reflects Stenson’s broader interest in Doukhobor responses to modernity.
While didactic at times, Svoboda is clearly written and reflects a solid understanding of its subject matter. Stenson nicely evokes the atmosphere of Nelson in the 1950s. Svoboda also makes an imaginative contribution to our understanding of Doukhobor families after the break-up of many communal villages in the late 1930s and 1940s. Much has been written about the impact of government policy on the Doukhobor community and on its Freedomite radicals, but we know less about how individual families adapted to the changes brought by the collapse of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in 1938.
Svoboda’s references to the bombing and burning of property by Freedomites and its description of the children’s experience at the school in New Denver points to the obvious tensions and struggles many Doukhobor families experienced in the West Kootenay in the 1950s. The widespread use by Anglo-Canadians of the disparaging term “Douk” for Doukhobors represented another challenge for Doukhobors trying to find their way in mainstream Canadian society. Strikingly, Vasili does not reflect much on the treatment he and his family received from the government and wider society. His eventual response to all that happens to him is simply that he is proud to be a Doukhobor. I enjoyed getting to know him in the pages of Svoboda.