CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 29 . . . . March 30, 2018
In the three previous stories of her baba's babushkas, Natalia found herself in rural Ukraine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time of the first wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada. This time, she lands in an unfamiliar landscape where an older woman wearing a yellow flowered headscarf is speaking to a young girl of Natalia's age. The scene brings back fond memories of her own grandmother, and so, Natalia approaches the two. Addressing them in Ukrainian, she receives no response. Thinking that they might be Métis , she tries again in Michif, the unique language which combines Cree verbs and verb phrases and French nouns. How does Natalia know Michif? She remembers Baba's saying "hello" in that language. Still no answer – as in the previous three "Baba's Babushka" books, she is invisible to those she observes.
The young girl, Paulette, asks her grandmother, "Kohkum why do you wear a babushka?" Kohkum (i.e. Grandmother) replies in Michif, reminding Paulette of the importance of their people's oral tradition: "When I speak to you in Michif, you will remember the sounds, words, and meaning. It is in your spirit. This is what was told to me and now, I pass it on to you." To her surprise, Natalia is able to understand Kohkum, and, in the course of listening to the older woman's story, she learns more about her own history and that of the people who lived on the Prairies, prior to settlement.
Kohkum first tells of the voyageurs who worked in the fur trade, either for the North West Company or the Hudson's Bay Company. From the First Nations people, the voyageurs learned the skills they needed to survive in the vastness of the West. These men married First Nations women, and their children became the Métis Nation, Kohkum and Paulette's ancestors. The Métis played a crucial role "in the fur trade because they spoke several languages and understood the ways and customs of both the First Nations and the Europeans", and, as Kohkum was quick to point out, the women worked just as hard to help.
In the late 1890's, the Canadian government advertised heavily in Europe, encouraging immigration and the opportunity to work and to own land in Canada's western territories. Although Ukrainian immigration to Canada began in 1891, the story to which Natalia listens takes place in 1911. By 1911, with the growth of Russian socialism and the increasing failure of Tsar Nicholas II to manage political unrest, particularly amongst the lower classes and rural peasantry, the political situation in Ukraine was beginning to destabilize. Ukrainians left their homeland, both as political and as economic refugees. Kohkum tells the story of one such family.
After crossing the ocean by ship, a pair of grandparents, two brothers and their wives, and two children undertake the long train journey from the port near Quebec City to Winnipeg. From there, they travelled west in oxen-driven Red River Carts, arriving in a place called "kisiskâciwan", a Cree word describing rivers which "flow fast". Kohkum points out that, although the government called the area the "North West Territories", the area in which her story takes place came to be known as Saskatchewan, and the name "Canada" originates "from the Huron-Iroquois word 'kanata', " meaning a "village or settlement." Kohkum likes "hearing these names in the language of those who lived here first" and doesn't hesitate to state that, when the government granted land to settlers, they didn't bother with "speaking first to our First Nations relatives".
Kohkum and her grandmother are enjoying a breakfast of freshly-baked bannock when they see two wagons bearing strangers heading in their direction. Kohkum's grandfather, André Trottier, welcomes these people, and through gestures, introduces his family and learns the names of these Ukrainian immigrants. They are Natalia's baba and dido (grandmother and grandfather) Sophie and Stefan Dubyk, their children, and Stefan's brother and his wife. They are welcomed by the hospitality of André's family who feed them and show them where to find water to clean up. Later that evening, sitting around a campfire, they play the music and perform the dances traditional to their respective cultures. The men wear wide sashes as belts and play the fiddle, and the women show each other the stitchery that each treasures: the cross-stitched vyshyvanya (embroidery) of Ukraine and the intricate floral beadwork with which the Métis decorate their clothing and footwear. During the three days that the two families spend together, they comment frequently, "Different but good". Kohkum states that the Ukrainians "had a love of faith and they prayed liked us. They had strong families and good food. They loved music, and sang and danced. They wore sashes, decorated their clothing with embroidery work, and like to have fun as they laughed and joked just like us."
On the last day of their time together, the two grandmothers exchange gifts. Baba Sophie wears a beautiful flowered headscarf, which she calls a "fustka", and she offers it to Kohkum Rosalie. Kohkum Rosalie dons the scarf and then says the word "pootishka", meaning "put it on" in Michif, and, as the two women exchange smiles, laughs and hugs, the words for headscarf are transformed into the word "babushka". Rosalie gifts a pair of beaded moccasins to Sophie, once again saying, "pootishka". Sophie finds them to be a perfect fit and says "Dyakuyu" (thank you) to Rosalie, and then the settlers head off. During that decade, many more Ukrainian immigrants arrive, and "fustke" (plural of fustka) or "khuste" (a variant of the word "fustka") are often traded for food and clothing items produced by the Métis. Over time, Kohkum Rosalie had a collection of babushkas, and they become a fashion item as well as a practical accessory for sun protection, warmth, as well as wearing to church.
Whether Ukrainian or Métis, grandmothers wore babushkas, and after hearing this story, Natalia wants to give her yellow babushka to Kohkum's granddaughter, Paulette. But, Paulette doesn't see her, or the shower of babushkas which suddenly fall from the sky. On the last page of the book, Natalia awakes from sleep and places her yellow flowered babushka in the special storage chest which once belonged to her baba and now holds personal treasures. The smell of her mother's borsch (traditional Ukrainian beet soup) lures her to the kitchen, with the hope that maybe her mom will make some bannock to accompany it.
Kohkum's Babushka blends historical fact with fantasy in telling of the meeting of two families, one Indigenous and the other, Ukrainian settlers. Despite a significant language barrier, they manage to communicate through a spirit of sharing: food, music, and appreciation for both the differences and similarities of each other's culture. Both families derive their livelihood from the gifts of the land and through hard work. The settlers are shown no hostility, only kindness and understanding of the courage they have mustered to travel to a strange land and make a new home. Given the current re-visioning of the impact of colonialism and settler culture upon the Métis and Indigenous peoples, this friendly encounter is truly magical.
In the "Author's Note", Marion Mutala tells of an Indigenous man who stopped by her booth at a literary festival and after looking at her book, Baba's Babushka: A Magical Ukrainian Christmas, remarked that "babushka" is a Cree word. "Pootishka means 'she is wearing'. It is either pronounced babushka or pootishka. As an urban Ukrainian-Canadian growing up in North End Winnipeg, I called a headscarf a "babushka", my Baba called it a "babushka", and even non-Ukrainians called it a "babushka"! However, inspirations for stories can come from all manner of sources. "Pootishka-babushka" – who knows how words can transform!
I had a bit of difficulty determining the age of the intended audience for this book. Publication information from the Gabriel Dumont Institute Press indicated that the age level was "Primary", which I assume means "Elementary School". As an adult reader, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief that Natalia could understand Michif, although in a time-travel dream, I suppose that anything is possible. Compared to the other books in the "Babushka" series, this book has much more text per page, and the historical content seems aimed at students in the Grades 3-5 range. The illustrations for this book are also different from the other "Babushka" books. Donna Lee Dumont's graphics are done in a folk art style, with flat, two-dimensional line drawings and vibrant colours. Each page of unpaginated text is bordered by two designs: at the top of the page is the geometric cross-stitch of Ukrainian embroidery and at the bottom, beadwork featuring flowers, meanders and the (infinity) symbol of the Métis Nation. Glossaries of both Michif and Ukrainian words are provided, although the meanings of most Ukrainian and Michif expressions can be understood from their context. It seems that no "Baba's Babushka" book is complete without a traditional recipe, and Mutala provides the recipes for Baba Sophie's borsch as well as a bannock recipe.
The final page of the book lists "Cultural Connections" intended as a resource for content area teaching. Suggestions for activities in areas as diverse as Math, Music, Creative Writing and Dance are offered, but they serve primarily as "prompts" or starting points. Teachers planning to undertake these activities would definitely have to provide some structure and would need to ensure that students could readily find the resources to undertake them. Lastly, a list of "References" provides a short list of other books illustrated by Dumont, and, of course, the other "Baba's Babushka" books. Dumont's two books both focus on the Metis experience, and just as Kohkum's Babushka offers a glimpse into the history of Natalia's grandparents, Peter Fidler and the Métis is Dumont's telling of the story of her ancestors, a Hudson's Bay map-maker and his Cree wife.
The concepts of tolerance, cooperation, and of "Different but good" are all "dyzhe dobre", very good. The historical content made Kohkum's Babushka a little "heavier" than the other books of the "babushka" series, less narrative and more didactic. I think that girls, regardless of culture or ethnicity, would be more likely to choose this book than would boys, and the historical content would make this less likely as a fiction-reading choice than the others in Mutala's series. This book would probably find a place in elementary school libraries and resource collections in schools which offer Michif or Ukrainian language programing, Indigenous studies, and for public libraries serving communities with significant Metis and Ukrainian-Canadian populations. Social studies teachers can use the book to show the experiences of both immigrants and Indigenous and Métis peoples during the time of settlement. The story is situated in an area close to what is now Saskatoon, SK, and I believe that it would connect more with prairie readers than elsewhere in the country.
Finally, Kohkum's Babushka provides an interesting perspective on linguistic change and adaptation. My great-grandparents and grandparents came from Western Ukraine; immigrants from that part of Ukraine called a headscarf , a "babushka." I proudly don a babushka every year when my best friend and I have our photo taken for our annual Christmas varenyky (perogy) bee.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB (Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation).