“The boy Ukrainian?”
He said “Ukrainian” as if it were leaving a bad taste in his mouth. “Lotsa Ukrainian workers roamin’ around doing farm work these days. Don’t seem right, I say. Our boys going off to war to do their duty, and these Austro-Huns staying behind and reaping the profits.”
Hainstock nodded his head in agreement. “Truer words,” he said. “Mind you, we wouldn’t want them in the forces. We don’t need to be giving any enemy aliens rifles and bayonets. Might as well shoot yourself and get it over with.” The donkey bray echoed in the waiting room. Alex managed to thank Hainstock before the postman headed out of the store, still laughing. A kind of helpless fury washed over him. Did they think he couldn’t understand what they were saying?
Firebird is set in 1915-16 when Canada was at war against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. During the First World War, Prime Minister Borden’s government issued an order-in-council calling for the registration and possible imprisonment of “enemy aliens”; that is, newcomers who had come to Canada from Germany and its allies and were not naturalized British subjects. Because the Austro-Hungarian Empire was allied with Germany, Ukrainian newcomers from the provinces of Galicia and Bukovyna were regarded as a threat. Author Glen Huser notes that close to eight thousand Ukrainians were put in internment camps where over a hundred died. Others tried to escape and were shot.
From this troubling period of Canadian history, Huser, an educator and author, has created a novel about brotherly love and the kindness of strangers. The story centers on two orphan boys, Marco and Alex, who have made their way from Lviv in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rural Alberta to stay with their Uncle Andrew. Marco, the elder, age 16, is a talented artist who paints a brilliant firebird (phoenix) on their uncle’s blue-grey cupboard door.
In September 1915, Marco joins one of the threshing crews harvesting the western grain crop. Fourteen-year-old Alex misses his brother. As winter sets in, he worries because Marco, working on a farm in Vegreville, hasn’t been in touch lately and should be home by now. When fire claims the life of Uncle Andrew, destroys the farmhouse and leaves Alex with burned hands and face, all Alex can think of is finding Marco. The people Alex encounters on his quest are well-developed characters who not only illustrate a bygone way of life but also show the political and ethnic tensions of the period.
Neighbours take Alex to the home of a nurse, a widow with two daughters at home and a son at war. She and her little daughter are kind and friendly to Alex, but the elder daughter calls him a “Hun” and resents him for staying in her brother’s bedroom. On Christmas Day, 1915, the local storekeeper and postmaster, Mr. Bayles, delivers a telegram informing the nurse that her son has been killed. The kindly storekeeper takes Alex to stay with him to prevent him being the scapegoat of the family’s sorrow and anger. Mr. Bayles has a letter for Alex from Marco, dated December 2nd. He wrote that Mr. Granger, his employer, owes him $150.00 in wages; otherwise he would have come home long ago. Granger, a Boer War veteran, is cruel to his much-younger wife, Stella. Marco includes drawings to amuse Alex and promises to be home in a week or ten days.
Though Alex wants to go to Vegreville to find Marco, he is suffering from his burns and has no money, and so he stays with Mr. Bayles, helps in the store and returns to the village school. Eventually Mr. Bayles lends him the train fare from Vermilion to Vegreville and gets the postman to take Alex overland to the Vermilion railway station. On his journey, Alex encounters anti-Ukrainian sentiments. When he arrives at the Granger farm, Mr. Granger tells him that Marco stole money from him, that the police took Marco into custody and that he’s probably in an internment camp. Stella Granger privately tells Alex that Marco was her friend. Back in Vegreville, Alex goes to the railway station to return to Mr. Bayles, but he finds that the money for his fare is no longer in his coat pocket. He ducks out of the station and hides behind some railway cars.
There Alex meets a Ukrainian man, Ivan, also hiding, who asks if he’s thinking of riding the rails. Ivan invites him to come along to visit Magda, the housekeeper at the Ukrainian priest’s rectory, who will give them food and shelter in the kitchen until the next train comes through. There Alex learns that Stella Granger, of Ukrainian background, was married off five years earlier at age fifteen to her older husband. Ivan thinks the police took Marco to Edmonton and points out that it “would be tricky” for Alex to inquire about Marco because neither he nor his brother have naturalization papers. “Police are checking everyone these days who’s come from Austria-Hungary,” Ivan says. That night, he and Alex hop a freight train to Edmonton - in a coal car! They emerge black with coal dust and are spotted by police. They split up and run, and Alex hides in an alley under a pile of wood scraps and shavings where he falls asleep.
Again a kind person aids Alex. Karl Arneson, a carpenter of Norwegian origin, finds him and takes him home to his wife and family. Mrs. Arneson, who is pregnant and struggling to cope with her five children and making ends meet, suggests an orphan’s home for Alex, but Karl persuades her to let him stay with them. Alex eases her work load by helping around the house and minding the young children. Karl Arneson learns from the police that Marco Kaminsky has been sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Lethbridge. While the family mulls over a course of action, Alex attends school with the two oldest Arneson children and uses their surname.
At school, Alex has the good fortune to be placed in Mr. Dallaine’s Grade Six class. A young man with a club foot, Mr. Dallaine is sympathetic to newcomers to Canada. Realizing that Alex is not from Norway like the Arnesons, he asks him privately about his background. When Alex spills the whole story, the sympathetic teacher says, “This war! It chooses some odd victims.” He promises not to divulge Alex’s secret and offers to do some investigating.
Alex lets Mr. Bayles know where he is living so the storekeeper forwards his mail to the Arnesons’ address. Marco's letter tells of his fight with Mr. Granger for his wages, his arrest, and his incarceration in a camp at Lethbridge. He has met Ivan, Alex’s friend, who was picked up by the cops in Edmonton. Enclosing a crayon drawing of a firebird, he writes, “Remember the story Mama would tell us of the firebird rising again, more brighter than before, from ashes.” A subsequent letter says that he and Ivan are being sent to a camp near Banff. Alex also gets a letter from Stella Granger who is in hospital in Vegreville after a beating from her husband. She writes that she has left her husband, confides that she and Marco were “more than friends” and encloses a letter for Alex to send to Marco. When Mrs. Arneson hears this, she guesses that “there’s a baby coming” - Marco’s.
Alex’s troubles continue. At school, the principal learns that Alex was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and expels him. “It makes me sick to my stomach”, he says, “to think that you believed you could sneak in here.” He intends to report Alex to the police. During a worried discussion with the Arnesons about what to do, Alex again has a stroke of luck. Mr. Dallaine drops in and offers to take him to Calgary to his aunt, Mathilde Lafontaine, who raised him. He’s confident that she will welcome Alex to stay with her until his brother is released. Mr. Dallaine’s aunt, Mathilde Lafontaine, turns out to be a kind, cultured, wealthy woman, and in her home, Alex enjoys a life of relative luxury.
While Alex’s good fortune in finding benefactors might seem too good to be true, it is believable for several reasons. The author establishes early on that a great many Eastern European newcomers in the west were on the move to evade arrest as “enemy aliens”. Consequently, it might well happen that Ivan and Alex would both happen to be near the railroad tracks and would join forces. Similarly, since so many Ukrainians were being herded into camps, it is well within the realm of possibility that Marco and Ivan met.
Since most European immigrants faced ethnic discrimination and would be sympathetic to a young newcomer in need, it is not odd that Ivan, and then the Arnesons, befriend Alex. Not all teachers embraced the aggressive patriotism of Alex’s school principal, and some must have befriended young newcomers, as Mr. Dallaine does. Many Canadians of French origin had reservations about Canada’s level of participation in the war, and that may be the reason why the author chose a French background for Mr. Dallaine and Mrs. Lafontaine who do so much for Alex. Careful foreshadowing and a well-planned story structure make the lucky breaks and fortuitous coincidences in Firebird seem not only believable but well-deserved.
The final third of the novel takes place mostly in Banff where Mr. Dallaine’s aunt has a cottage. There, she and Alex conspire to help Marco escape. Throughout the novel, dramatic tension keeps us reading. The final outcome is a blend of tragedy, joy and hope, in which a phoenix rises from the ashes.
In his bibliography, the author lists 11 works he consulted about Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian experience in Canada. His research, his engaging characters and realistic, sophisticated plot make Firebird a great read.
For her novel, Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019), email@example.com, Ruth Latta did extensive research into the impact of World War I on everyday people in Canada.