Head Cook at Weddings And Funerals And Other Stories of Doukhobor Life (Canada)

book coverby Vi Plotnikoff

Normally, I don’t enjoy short story collections from the same, unknown-to-me author. But this linked collection of short stories was a treat. It felt like curling up on the green ceramic stove I saw in the Doukhobor Discovery Centre near Castlegar, B.C., (in Grand Forks) and smelling the home-baked bread and borscht, which they call borsh. The author is a Canadian woman of Doukhobor descent, and the stories are all set just north of the border near my Spokane home.

Language Note: I’m currently studying Russian with the Rosetta Stone, and I could recognize many of the foreign words in this book…barely. Obviously the Dukohobors spoke some kind of dialect. If I remember my geography correctly, they were from an area in the Ukraine so perhaps that is why.

Most of the stories are set in the 1950s and center around young Ana, just as the times are changing and tradition is being challenged. Rebellious Doukhobor girls  are starting to run off to Vancouver to sing in cafes rather than continue milking, plowing, and planting as their mothers and grandmothers did.

Some stories flash back to the youth of Ana’s mother and baba (grandmother). Ana’s babushka came to Canada when she was four years old, after the great persecution of the Doukhobors back in Russia.

The Peaceniks

I knew, of course, that the Doubkhobors broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1700s. I knew that they had a big bonfire and burned all their weapons and refused to fight for the Czar. I knew they were persecuted for it, and that the author Leo Tolstoy donated the profits from his last novel to help thousands of them resettle in Canada.

women in traditional costumeI did not know that in Canada, they refused to join the Canadian military or to take a loyalty oath to the Canadian government. But it makes sense. They felt their duty to God came before any duty to Queen or Country. That is why many of them moved from Saskatchewan, where they first settled, to B.C., where many remain today. I didn’t know that Doukhobors parents refused to allow their boys to march in parades or in gym class – “Doukhobors don’t march”, says the book. It’s too militant.

The stories deal with all the issues that Ana has growing up:

1) Being one of a majority sect in which the minority have become terrorists. (It must have felt a bit like being Muslim today.)

newspaperSons of Freedom

The Sons of Freedom is a Doukhobor sect which eschewed peace (in other words, everything that made them Doukhobor in the first place and brought them to Canada). They started bombing things and people and gave the rest of the Doukhobors a bad name. Ugh. In retaliation, the Canadian government sent Mounties into their villages, rounded up their under-age children, and took them away to be locked behind barbed wire in boarding schools where they were only allowed to see their families once every two weeks. They were forcibly taught to read and write, against the parents’ wishes.

2) Being a girl in a religious sect where men have all the power.

One heart-breaking story in the book involves Ana finding a long braid with pretty ribbons tucked away in a box. It is her baba’s.

“Why did you cut your hair, Bab?”
“Because I had to.”

We learn that the young Natasha was very proud of her beautiful hair. One day the newlywed hears her mother-in-law and young sisters-in-law crying. She’s terrified that her Dmitri, away working on the railway, has been in an accident. No. The religious leader of the Doukhobors far away has pronounced a new edict. Long hair, he says, is unsanitary. It’s too much trouble when the women have all this other work to do. All Doukhobor women are to chop their hair off short – immediately.

Talk about men controlling women’s bodies. Talk about abuse of power. UGH

Tolstoy StatueNatasha thinks about running and hiding, or going to her mother’s village. But all the women in her mother’s village are under the same edict. Soon there is a knock on the door and the village barber appears, clippers in hand.

Without her glorious head of hair, Natasha thinks her thin face looks like a rodent’s. Like any modern woman with a bad haircut, she wonders if the way she looks will make her husband stop loving her. She never truly feels beautiful again.

The Immigrant Story

3) Finally,  there is the tension that all immigrants and emigrants face: Being Canadian and Duokhobor at the same time, with the prejudices each has against the other. Being poor. Wanting to fit in. Each new generation gets closer to the new country’s customs and attitudes and further from the old. The grandparents and grandchildren no longer speak the same language. The old customs, the group memory starts to die.

I am fascinated by the immigrant story. It is my story too.  Four short generations ago, my mother’s people lived in Denmark and spoke Danish. Generations before that they lived in Ireland – as did my father’s people – and spoke Gaelic. Now we are Americans. For how long, I wonder? And what language will my descendants speak? Would they recognize the themes of my life? Will they face the same challenges?

Five pirogis for this book.

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