17 July 2008

by Bill Stenson
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Chris Istace
$ 18.95 ISBN 978-1-897235-30-0

Svoboda, by Victoria, B.C. author Bill Stenson, is a story of assimilation, providing a strong overview of how one Doukhobor family came to be as Canadian as their neighbours. Vasili Saprikin grew up in the midst of the tumultuous early history of the Doukhobor’s struggle to maintain the way of life they wanted to bring to Canada from Russia. A communal people, their settlements in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia were being assaulted by governmental attempts to assimilate the Doukhobor people into the Canadian culture of the 1950s.

The Doukhobor’s response to this pressure developed into a pacifistic faction and a violent one. Learning from his grandfather, Alexay, Vasili stood outside these two factions while being taught to be proud of his heritage, regardless of how the circumstances of his culture changed. This was a challenge after the boy was whisked away from his single mother, Anuta, to residential school, where he was introduced to a conventional North American education and lifestyle.

Vasili came to enjoy being educated and living the life of a standard teenager, however negative his experience at the residential school was. After returning to his mother and grandfather, he continued his education and grew to be immersed in conventional Canadian culture. However, how would a Doukhobor boy growing into a man maintain his spiritual and cultural identity while living in this new place?

This is the story Stenson intends to reveal in Svoboda, and he does so with keen insight into what it may have been like to be persecuted as an outsider coming to Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. Although a fictional story, Stenson drives home the point that the Doukhobor story, while troubling at first, is a story that reveals the multi-layered fabric that makes up Canada.


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