CM Magazine Review - Kalyna's Song

CM Magazine
Reviewed by: Marsha Skrypuch

Excerpt: But I feel sorry for the dancers. Most of them, anyway. Carla Senko, one of the girls in my dance group -- who is also in my class at school -looks as though she's about to faint from the heat. We've never been friends. Carla is a bully and a boss. A know-it-all. She's pushy and mean -- and still, somehow, the most popular girl at school and in Ukrainian dancing. If Carla drops from sunstroke, I might just smile and look the other way. Boh ne be bu kom, as my mother would say. God doesn't hit with a stick.

The above excerpt is a good indication of the tone of Kalyna's Song. Colleen Lutzak is the main character, and the story is told from her first person point of view. Colleen is a second-generation Alberta teen whose heritage is Ukrainian. This girl straddles two worlds. Her grandparents and parents all speak Ukrainian, but Colleen and her siblings don't. She takes Ukrainian language classes in school, and Ukrainian dance on weekends, but these are things she keeps secret from her English friends. Colleen finds that she doesn't fit in with the 'super-Ukes' - the kids her age who are fluent in Ukrainian and who participate fully in the Ukrainian Canadian community. She thinks they look down on her because of her fractured Ukrainian and her ignorance about the culture. However, in the larger English community, she doesn't really belong either. She thinks these kids look down on her because of her ethnic last name.

In reality, no one is thinking about Colleen nearly as much as she thinks they are. Teen readers whose own parents or grandparents immigrated from somewhere else will relate to Colleen's situation. The responsibilities of culture and family conflicting with peer pressure and the need to fit in are all too universal. Colleen is not an entirely likeable character. She is a gifted pianist and an outsider looking in. Colleen continually puts herself into situations where she can prove to others that she's better than they are, and she is always upstaged, which makes for interesting and satisfying reading.

When Colleen finds that she cannot succeed in a dramatic way at home, she goes to university for a year in Swaziland. She finds that there is no geographical solution, and the feeling of being an outsider is even more intense. The Kalyna in the title is the Ukrainian translation of Colleen. It is also the name of a beloved childlike older relative who is Colleen's alter-ego. Colleen's complex relationship with Kalyna is a metaphor for her confused idea of her own identity.

When Kalyna's Song, Lisa Grekul's first novel, first came out in 2003, it was marketed as adult fiction. It was nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and also the Kobzar Award. Coteau books has repackaged it as a young adult novel in a pocketbook size and with a teen-friendly cover. It's too bad that when they re-packaged it that they didn't edit it down a bit. At 460 pages, this is a hefty tome for a teen reader. That said, the first person perspective is definitely appealing to the new target audience, as is the simplicity of the novel's structure: Colleen must return home from her exchange year abroad in order to attend her cousin Kalyna's funeral. Within that frame, the story is fairly linear, with Colleen reminiscing about poignant and humourous incidents from her teen years. These vivid scenes and vignettes are so fully fleshed out in character and setting that they are almost stand-alone short stories.

However, while I enjoyed every word of Kalyna's Song I think it would have been stronger with fewer. Those interested in action in every paragraph will be disappointed, but Grekul is a gifted writer and her main character's artfully written self-absorption will certainly appeal to read-aholic teen readers. Recommended Marsha Skrypuch of Brantford, ON, has a Master's degree in Library Science. She is the author of seven children's books and the editor of one anthology.

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