Doukhobor lovers in a dangerous time
Being a Doukhobor descendent himself, Robert Chursinoff's characters are depicted showing his compassion for each of them.
February 10th, 2023
In July, 1998, two teenagers are running away from a tragedy involving Hell’s Angels bikers. Jonah Seeger and Ruby Samarodin had played together as youngsters in the Kootenays despite coming from two very different backgrounds.
by Valerie Green
When they reached their teens and met again at school, they instantly fell in love. The first sentence in the novel describes Jonah’s feelings for Ruby as “when you love someone with the force of an atomic bomb ….”
It’s a passionate opening that draws the reader in immediately. But their love is doomed.
Robert Chursinoff’s debut novel, The Descendants (NightWood $24.95) is a captivating story of love, family trauma and loss set against the background of the complex history of BC’s Doukhobors (the pacifist Christian group that emigrated from Russia to Canada in 1899, many of whom eventually settled in Grand Forks and southeastern BC’s Slocan Valley).
The author’s characters are compelling as they struggle to re-evaluate their pacifist roots, their long-misunderstood religious beliefs and the actions of The Sons of Freedom sect (a.k.a the Freedomites, a small, break-away group of Doukhobors who protested by using public nudity and arson). The days of the struggles between the pacifist Community Doukhobors and The Sons of Freedom were over by the late 1990s, but the painful memories remain for Jonah and Ruby, who are suffering the consequences of their earlier Doukhobor ancestors.
The structure of Chursinoff’s story is unusual. Not only is he writing a fictional story of love and hope, but he also begins each section with a non-fiction paragraph or two about the Doukhobor’s complicated past. This helps the reader understand his characters a little better. There is reference to the original Doukhobor leader, Peter V. Verigin— a pacifist Doukhobor—and how he arrived in Canada from Russia and later mysteriously died in 1935 in an explosion on a train, a mystery that was never completely solved.
Jonah and Ruby feel the reverberations of some of these historical happenings, especially Jonah whose mother is still affected by the humiliation of being a member of the Sons of Freedom. When he drives Ruby in his Honda Civic, screeching around mountain road curves as they get closer to home, Jonah wonders what he has done to his family: “Was more shame on its way to his mother, already shamed because of her Sons of Freedom family? For how long could he and Ruby Samarodin just drive a loop through the West Kootenay towns?”
This all makes for an exciting start to the story and encourages the reader to want to know more.
The characters in this book are clearly depicted showing the author’s compassion for each one of them. There is Virginia (Ruby’s mother), a pious stalwart of the traditional pacifist Doukhobors but who only wants the best for her daughter; Sharon (Jonah’s mother) who is trying to put her painful Sons of Freedom past behind her, especially anything that involved stripping naked and burning down buildings; Sharon’s brother Yuri who pays the ultimate price; Ruby, the musician, who returns to her Doukhobor roots in 2005 as a drug addict; Jonah who returns from Iraq with post traumatic stress disorder after serving as a Marine and losing a limb; and Sasha, the child Ruby left behind and lied to Jonah about his parentage.
Into this mix are added two biker gang brothers, Michael (Swanny) and Clayton, with whom scores must eventually be settled in order for everyone to move forward.
Ruby’s rock’n roll music, drug, sex and alcohol scenes are explicit and painfully raw taking the reader into the drama of her life after she ran away to pursue her musical dream.
Chursinoff also depicts the frightening scenes of Jonah’s time as a soldier in Iraq which leave him with PTSD when even the sound of fireworks exploding or a helicopter flying overheard instantly takes him back to being in the midst of battle and seeing his friends die.
The story swings back and forth in time between 1995 and 2005— which sometimes makes for a hard read. It might have been better written chronologically from the beginning of the story to the end. Nonetheless, it works this way too. All the pieces cleverly fit together and questions are eventually answered making for a powerful ending.
The Descendants also describes many similarities between the ill-treatment of the children of The Sons of Freedom, brutally taken from their parents and sent to a prison-like school, with what happened to First Nations children sent to Residential Schools. For that reason alone, learning of the injustice to the Doukhobor children, this book is valuable.
Chursinoff is more than qualified to write this story having grown up in a Doukhobor community himself. There is a strong essence of hope in his final paragraph on the Doukhobor history when he writes:
“Today there is an estimated 120,000 Doukhobors and their descendants living primarily in Canada, the United States, Russia and the Caucasus region. Many have forgotten their roots and their culture. Yet many more are rediscovering their Doukhobor identity each and every day.”
Chursinoff, a successful musician who has been a drummer for Tegan and Sara, Australian pop star Ben Lee and the Be Good Tanyas, has proven he can write as well as play music with this rich and exciting novel.
Valerie Green’s most recent book is Providence, the first title in her historical fiction, four-book series called The McBride Chronicles covering six generations of a BC family from the 1840s to present day. www.valeriegreenauthor.com