Myrna Kostash has been a regular blog correspondent and has kept me in my place on occasions when I have published work or links that I should have checked more thoroughly. In late 2010 she published her most recent book called Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium which is at the same time a very personal study of her own beliefs, and a travel memoir.
The blurb describes the book thus:
“A deep-seated questioning of her inherited religion resurfaces when Myrna Kostash chances upon the icon of St Demetrius of Thessalonica. A spiritual and historical odyssey that begins in Edmonton, ranges around the Balkans, and plunges into a renewed vision of Byzantium in search of the Great Saint of the East delivers the author to an unexpected place – the threshold of her childhood church. An epic work of travel memoir, “Prodigal Daughter” sings with immediacy and depth, rewarding readers with a profound sense of an adventure they have lived. This book will appeal to readers interested in Ukrainian-Canadian culture and the Greek Orthodox religion and history, as well as to fans of Kostash’s bold creative non-fiction.”
Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium By Myrna Kostash is published by University of Alberta Press and is available from Amazon.
This review by Joanne Thibault was first published in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Edmonton-based Myrna Kostash’s “journey to Byzantium,” as she subtitles this impressive outing, is simultaneously a travelogue and a historical account enveloped in personal journals and deep spiritual reflection.
It begins in the summer of 2000 at St. Peter’s Abbey, near Muenster, Sask., where the veteran journalist and author of several well-regarded non-fiction books, is attending an annual writer’s colony.
While glancing through some of the monastery’s big art books, she unexpectedly finds herself drawn into a book of iconography featuring the art of the Eastern Church.
“It’s been some time,” she writes, “since I was impressed by the fact that images that once had been wholly ‘privatized’ within the church of my childhood had become objects of serious scholarship.”
Kostash is transfixed on one particular icon: St. Demetrius of Thessalonica. She feels an instant, powerful and inescapable affinity with the saint.
This launches her into an all-encompassing study of Demetrius. She learns that he miraculously defended and saved the city of Thessalonica for Greece in the early 4th century.
He died in 306 AD, martyred for defending Christianity against pagan Slavs.
Initially, Kostash is perturbed to discover that Demetrius fought against the Slavs, “Demetrius has protected Thessalonians… from those who have come pouring down into the Balkans — the barbarians, which is to say the Slavs, which is to say me.”
As she relentlessly pursues fact and legend about St. Demetrius, she reconciles that the pagan Slavs of Demetrius’s Thessalonica were later converted to the Eastern Church.
She untangles the complex history of the Balkans by waging a knowledge campaign worthy of the Ottoman empire she is dogging.
She makes her way methodically to churches bearing the name or icons of St. Demetrius. Over thick coffees and around amiable dinner tables, she siphons stories, opinion and speculation about the life of St. Demetrius from local scholars, professors, curators, archivists and priests.
From each encounter she injects Prodigal Daughter with personal anecdotes and insights into the post-Communist political aura of the region.
She heaps on multiple views and perspectives of St. Demetrius, delving into where, how and when he is remembered, feasted, prayed over, venerated and honoured.
Kostash also writes extensively about being awakened to the origins of her own complex heritage, a jumble of Ukrainian, Slavic, Balkan, and Greek Orthodox. She reattaches emotionally to the ethnicity and culture she had tucked away when leaving childhood to become “a secular humanist in the arts.”
In noticeable contrast, Kostash does not use words to amplify reattaching to her Orthodox faith. Instead she offers a confession that speaks an even louder volume.
“Now that I was becoming seriously interested in the tradition of worship in the Orthodox Church, which prided itself on its roots in Christian antiquity, I would, I feared, shock friends and family.”
There is no shock in the fact that the Kostash’s talent and 10 years of effort have combined to produce an excellent book.
Winnipegger Joanne Thibault studies iconography, the sacred art of the Orthodox Church.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2010 H9