Village among Nations: ‘Canadian’ Mennonites in a Transnational World
by Royden Loewen, Winnipeg: University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 301, softcover, pictorial, maps, index, $32.95
In Village among Nations: ‘Canadian’ Mennonites in a Transnational World, author Royden Loewen describes a group of people at home in many nations across the Americas, but not rooted in any of them. My chance encounter on a recent visit to the Low German Mennonite colony of La Honda in the North-Central Mexican state of Zacatecas demonstrated this powerfully. Mrs. B moved to Paraguay as a young child, then to Belize as a recently remarried young widow. Circumstances brought her back to Paraguay, where the death of her second husband occasioned a fourteen year sojourn in Canada. Now she was settled in a very modest but comfortable home with her third husband in La Honda in Mexico. She has children and step-children in numerous countries in North and South America. Though she has Canadian citizenship, she is now putting down roots in Mexico, which is her fourth country of residence.
Her experience is a snapshot of what Loewen calls the transnational identity of these by now some 300,000 so-called Low German Mennonites or Kanadier, who left Canada in the 1920s to settle in Mexico and Paraguay, and from there moved to Bolivia, Belize and Argentina, and back (and forth) to Canada. The book follows this story roughly chronologically, and uses source materials like academic studies, primary sources such as some twenty years of the Mennonitische Post, and interviews conducted over a number of years. Through many and varied examples across all elements of the Low German Mennonite spectrum, Loewen demonstrates the ‘village’ mentality of the people, characterized by loyalty to values unrelated and often foreign to their country of residence, and a language, Low German, that remains the unifying link, despite utilitarian accommodations to the languages of their country of residence. Always the story is told in the lives of real people, revealed through their letters and journals, and coaxed into view by careful and patient interviews.
The Low German speaking or Kanadier Mennonites have been viewed in many ways by mainstream Mennonite culture, and by the wider world. They are occasionally viewed as stirring examples of people able to wrest a living from inhospitable places by dint of hard work and the capacity to collaborate and cooperate. They are sometimes viewed as people locked in the darkness of ignorance and conservatism whose lives must be illuminated by education and progress and evangelical Christianity. They are also viewed as objects of curiosity—a fascinating cultural anomaly and historical throwback. The lens offered by Loewen in this study offers us a vehicle to understand and appreciate them without needing to change or ‘fix’ them.
The premise of this book is engaging, and its conclusions are borne out time and time again in conversations and interactions with Low German Mennonites from Canada, and from Mexico and Bolivia. In many ways, these people are living out in radical terms our call as Christians to embrace an alternative allegiance—an allegiance to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God rather than any temporal national allegiance. In significant ways, these transnational Low German Mennonites demonstrate what an article in the Canadian Mennonite called ‘discipleship as citizenship’ (December 16, 2013), ‘… God’s kingdom…manifest in service rather than dominion, vulnerability rather than coercion, love rather than fear’. The transnational people described in this book have demonstrated this powerfully in a variety of countries over the generations since the 1920’s. The call to live faithfully according to their interpretation of God’s standards is much more significant to them than the demands that any country of residence may try to impose on them. They are willing to go to extraordinary lengths, and suffer significant hardship and deprivation in order to faithfully live out this alternative allegiance.
But there is also a shadow side to this view of faith and the world, and, if there is a deficit in Loewen’s book, it may well be the fact that this shadow side is not explored in sufficient detail. The perception that people are living above, or at least parallel, to the laws of any given country removes some of the checks and balances that more active and engaged ‘citizenship’ brings with it. Seeing nations only as resources of land and opportunity where one can live under specially negotiated rights and ‘Privilegien’ results in an inadequate understanding of the compensatory responsibilities. The negative effects of these perceptions on the lives of ordinary transnational Low German Mennonites are painfully obvious in many communities. This is not to say that these negative effects are visible everywhere, or that they are the dominant feature of this group of people. But they do need to be named and confronted as another manifestation of a ‘transnational’ identity.
In conclusion, I am grateful for this book, and for the opportunity to view the history of a people I have known peripherally all my life through this lens. As a Low German Mennonite who has not shared their experience of living transnationally in a ‘village among nations’, I am challenged by their example. My understanding of these people has grown, and I am grateful for that. Thanks, Royden, for telling ‘the remarkable story of a Canadian-descendant people who moved among the nations of the Americas to contest and implicitly critique a nation-centric world’.
All My Puny Sorrows
by Miriam Toews, Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2014, 321 pages, hardcover, $29.95
Whatever else can or will be said about Miriam Toews’ latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows (the title is taken from a Coleridge poem), her sheer courage must be acknowledged and celebrated. In 1998, Toews’ father, Melvin, a Steinbach teacher, stepped in front of a train at Woodridge, Manitoba, after suffering for years from severe depression. She documented her father’s struggles, and the family’s response, in a memoir called Swing Low, published in 2000. In 2010, Toews’ older sister Marjorie followed almost literally in her father’s footsteps; she stepped in front of a train in Winnipeg. Miriam Toews’ response was, again, to write. You might have thought she would be stunned into grieving silence, especially after Marjorie’s death. But again, she has found words to describe, to question, to comment on these heart-breaking circumstances. And she does so with her usual narrative signature, an ironically humorous voice. This in itself is miraculous.
It is, of course, nothing new to make art out of one’s suffering. A large part of world literature has emerged that way. Yet there is a particular kind of angst for survivors of family members who commit suicide that those of us not burdened in that way can barely comprehend. Or not truly comprehend, at all. Survivors must struggle with guilt…could they have done something more, or differently, that could have steered the loved one away from self-destruction and made it possible for life to go on? There cannot be a “final answer” for a question like that.
In 2004, Toews published her best-selling novel, A Complicated Kindness, set in “East Village,” Manitoba, a thinly disguised Steinbach. Swing Low, A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows—or, to use Toews’ own acronym, AMPS—are in some way all part of a continuous narrative, the story of a family, a father, a mother, and two daughters. The names may change but the characters are quite consistent. It is a beleaguered family, and a brave one, struggling with depression and the misunderstanding and callous judgements of outsiders or “perpetual disapprovers”, as the narrator in AMPS calls them. And always the narrator, whether she is named Miriam or Nomi or Yolandi, fights fiercely for her dear ones. It could even be said that she lifts them up, memorializing them, justifying them, celebrating them, when in their own community they have been demeaned, underestimated, criticized, judged.
It happens that the family whose story is told in these books is known by many of us personally. It is a family descended from the first families who settled Steinbach in 1874. Melvin Toews (1935-1998) was the son of Heinrich A. Toews (1902-1963) and Anna J. W. Reimer (1906-1905). Melvin’s great-grandfather was pioneer teamster Peter P. Toews (1839-1882) and his great-grandmother Elisabeth R. Reimer (1843-1918), was the sister of my own great-grandmother. Anna’s grandfather was the prominent merchant Klaas R. Reimer (1837-1906)— a brother to Elisabeth R. Reimer and to my great-grandmother.
Elvira Toews, Miriam’s mother, is a Loewen, the last surviving one in her family. Her parents were lumberman Cornelius T. Loewen (1883-1960) and Helena Friesen (1892-1950); her paternal grandparents were early Steinbach residents Cornelius B. Loewen (1863-1928) and Anna Toews (1863-1902); Anna Toews was a sister to Peter P. Toews (above). On Elvira’s mother’s side, her grandfather Abraham M. Friesen (1834-1908), of Blumenort, had a reputation during his lifetime as the most learned man in the East Reserve.
Miriam Toews’ parents, Melvin and Elvira, were therefore distant cousins, sharing a common ancestry like many other Steinbachers of their generation—a fact which finds its way into the AMPS saga, as do other historical facts. Yet Melvin—depressive, somewhat unassertive, slender—and Elvira—ebullient, forceful, more rounded —were hardly alike; if anything, they were a classic illustration of the truism that opposites attract.
Miriam Toews deviates from some of the actual Toews/Loewen history for her fictional family in AMPS. The father is named “Jacob Von Riesen,” and his parents come from a Mennonite village in Siberia, having endured atrocities in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Jacob suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and by the time the novel’s action commences, he is already deceased, having committed suicide. The surname of the mother, Lottie, is, however, “Loewen,” Elvira’s real name.
The tension in the novel concerns the narrator’s sister, Elfrieda (“Elf”), a world-renowned concert pianist who cannot bear living and actively wants to die. Will she succeed in killing herself? Will her loving sister, Yolandi, actually aid her in fulfilling this dark wish? Insofar as the novel tends to follow actual events, readers can guess the answer to the first question, if not the second. But now we also come to know what it is like for those who love a family member to contend with that person’s depression, and try to keep her alive.
It is soul-searing work. One would think, or hope, that love would be enough. Sadly, it is not. Elfrieda is surrounded by some of the most loving characters imaginable—her husband, her mother, her sister, her nephew and niece, her agent. Her wish to die is stronger than the support of all these. As she did in Swing Low, Miriam Toews has harsh words for the psychiatrists who tried to treat her loved ones, and as with her father, suggests that more committed or competent therapy might have kept her sister alive. Yet after all she does not seem altogether convinced of that.
In the actual history of Steinbach, the model for “East Village, not much is known of the story of depression or suicide amongst our ancestors, yet we do make inferences about the attitudes of that time and place, which are not so different from those still persisting among us today. These things were looked upon as shameful or weak. If you were a Christian in good standing with God, then why would you be depressed? That would be a sign of lack of faith, an issue that could be corrected by the proper movement of will. On the other hand, our ancestors were also not devoid of compassion and understood that not every facet of human life yields itself to doctrinal strictures.
In his diaries, my father, Peter D. Friesen, who served as a minister in the Steinbach Kleine Gemeinde from the 1930s to the 1950s (and who officiated at Melvin and Elvira’s wedding in 1956), cites five suicides. All were men, all from Steinbach and area except for one in the Morris district. They used rifles, or cut their throats, or, in one case, a man gassed himself by running his car in his closed garage (January 1944). This was the only non-Mennonite of those mentioned, Frank Tarnopolsky, the owner of the local cinema. My father, who had campaigned for the closing of the theatre, simply notes the event, with no further comment. He does, however, refer to the suicide of a Russländer man in 1939 as a “horrible act,” and continues: “God speaks very serious. In this case we can see the power of Satan, what he really is.”1This is a judgment, of course. But my father refrains from an outright condemnation of the man himself. The suicide is evidence of the power of Satan, putting it beyond the reach of everyday human understanding. Sometimes God does not win.
Miriam Toews does not suggest that the East Village/Steinbach “oppressive patriarchy” (Tasha’s term in A Complicated Kindness) is directly to blame for her sister’s suicidality. But that patriarchy is the social-religious system against which Elfrieda feels compelled to rebel. Toews borrows, it seems, from an actual incident occurring in the Steinbach Kleine Gemeinde church in the early 1950s. Progressives were pitted against conservatives in a divisive debate about whether a piano might be allowed in the church. The issue had still not been decided when some church deacons saw an ad in the paper for a piano at a good price; they went ahead and bought it and had it moved into the church, without permission from the “authorities.” My father, as pastor, had been trying to keep the opposing factions from splitting and now was very concerned. When the conservative minister, David P. Reimer of Blumenort, came to preach in Steinbach, my father had the piano covered with a blanket. Reimer gave his sermon but did not mention the shrouded object so obvious to everyone in the building. Eventually the crisis passed, the piano stayed in the church, and the conservatives reluctantly accepted it.
I don’t know if Miriam Toews knew of that story when she wrote AMPS, but she presents a version of something like it, only transferring the time frame to the early 1970s and the setting to the “Von Riesen” household. The Von Riesens possess “a secret piano, covered with sheets and gunny sacks when the elders came to visit.” When the church elders discover that the Von Riesens harbour this sinful instrument in their home, they discuss excommunicating Jacob, but decide against it “as long as my parents oversaw that Elf was using the piano only as an instrument for the Lord.” (14) When the elders make a visit to see how that’s going and to show their concern about her “indiscreet longing to leave the community” (12) (study music at university), Elfrieda plays Rachmaninoff in another room. The elders, chastised by the ferocious independence of her playing, quietly leave.
Whether such a thing could have happened in 1970s Steinbach, I don’t know. Did the Evangelical Mennonite Church (EMC), previously Kleine Gemeinde, to which the Toews family belonged, even have “elders”’? Such a thing could certainly have happened perhaps a generation earlier, when the Kleine Gemeinde was painfully transforming itself into the EMC, and when there was still a strong sense of a community ethic to which individuals were bound to submit.
In that moment of pounding out Rachmaninoff, “Elf took control of her life.” She did, indeed, but the novel goes on to tell the story of a young woman who fell under the spell of a larger power than her will to live—her wish to die. Did that wish arise from some unfortunate genetic predisposition, or chemical imbalance? Was it simply a manifestation of mental illness? Miriam Toews doesn’t explore these questions very much, but she does repeatedly describe Elfrieda’s struggle to be an individual, independent of the community’s religious idea of who or what she should be. In the conflict between a desiccated set of prohibitions masquerading as true religion and the individual desire for freedom, did Elfrieda find that she was overburdened and give up? It is a conflict which somehow belongs at the centre of the story of Steinbach, and no doubt, many other communities as well. One could imagine Jacob and Elfrieda (Melvin and Marjorie) as warriors or artists who dared to rebel against the existing authority and paid a high price for it. Do they represent a new, reverse kind of martyr? Was there truly so little compassion for them amongst the church community? Or is that just how it looks from a devoted and loving daughter’s/sister’s perspective?
Perhaps the individual rebel is condemned to longing. Miriam Toews, in her honesty and humility (quintessential Mennonite virtues) creates characters who are individual, free, and…often lost. They do not have the option of reconciliation to the narrow-minded religion they’ve managed to escape. But still, they yearn for spiritual community. This community by definition cannot be the church. For Toews it is the family. As young Nomi Nickel, heroine of A Complicated Kindness, declares:
The only thing I needed to know was that we were all going to live forever, together, happily, in heaven with God, and without pain and sadness and sin…we were supposed to stay together, it was clear to me. That was the function, the ultimate purpose, the entire premise for the existence of the Nickel Family. That we remained together for all eternity.
Nomi’s touching words might well be Miriam Toews’ manifesto, the reason she writes. Her best work—Swing Low, A Complicated Kindness, and now, All My Puny Sorrows—tells the tale of a family, beset by all manner of troubles, but ever faithful, ever loyal to its own members. This faith is present in every word of AMPS. Jacob killed himself, yes. Elfrieda killed herself, yes. A cousin did the same. Uncles and aunts are dead (on the mother’s side of the family). Yet the connections and the love continue, “in heaven with God.” Not the heaven of the ancestral faith, but something else, hardly defined, perhaps similar to what the late mythologist Joseph Campbell was talking about when he wrote:
I’ve lost a lot of friends, as well as my parents. A realization has come to me very, very keenly, however, that I haven’t lost them. That moment when I was with them has an everlasting quality about it that is now still with me…there’s a kind of intimation of immortality in that.2
When Yolandi, narrator of AMPS, tries to persuade her sister that she might have a reason to live because her life is a gift, Elfrieda responds: “Don’t preach, okay? Gift of life. You sounded like an old Mennonite, like what’s his name.” Yolandi answers, “I am an old Mennonite. So are you.” We don’t escape our communal matrix entirely. Our individual decisions determine the plot-line of our lives, but they occur within the context of the family and the community we’re born into. We can’t change that. We can write about it though. And that’s what Miriam Toews continues to do, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.
Nelson, British Columbia
Mary-Ann Kirby, I am Hutterite (2007), Rebecca Hofer, Removing the Hutterite Kerchief (2010), The Nine, Hutterites – Our Story to Freedom (2013), Mary-Ann Kirkby, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen (2014), and a sequel by The Nine, Since We Told the Truth (2014).
These five books, written by Hutterites after they left their home communities, provide outsiders a glimpse into Hutterite life. All the authors tell the stories of their lives from the perspective of those who, for one reason or another, decided to leave. All suffered pain, disappointment, anger, and betrayal when they left. All look back at their former lives through the lens of hindsight, and to some extent from the need to justify that their leaving was necessary. All express feelings of having found freedom, or a new religious life, or a new sense of wellbeing.
For the communities from which they came, and for many other Hutterite communities, these books are understandably painful. The communities also have feelings of anger, disappointment and betrayal. Their own children, those whom they taught and nurtured, and who they thought would one day become contributing members and leaders, have turned their backs on them. Their children have written their negative stories for the whole world to read. The home communities may well fear that not only will these writings give Hutterites a bad name, they may also lure others to leave.
Mary-Ann Kirkby, in her very successful books, is both critical and positive about Hutterite life. She is critical of the experiences in her home community which resulted in her family leaving, but she is positive about the values, strengths, and beauty of communal life when it works as it is intended to work. As she indicates, she tries to draw back the veil of secrecy around Hutterite daily life to allow outsiders to see the support, nurture, beautiful rhythm and joy of everyday life. Her lament is about those situations where community life breaks down, as it did for her family.
Rebecca Hofer’s book expresses sentiments similar to those voiced by Kirkby. Even though most of her book critiques life on her home community, Hofer’s group was not opposed to communal living. They left because, according to Hofer, communalism had broken down, financial records were falsified, discipline was arbitrary, factionalism decided who was in and who was out, essentials like food were withheld, and there was a general spirit of mistrust. Attempts at reconciliation within the community, and by the leaders of the larger Hutterite Church, were unsuccessful. Hofer relates how after years of failed attempts at restoring fellowship, her group finally left.
Hofer’s book illustrates that communalism can be both the best of worlds, and the worst of worlds, to paraphrase Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. When community life works as it should, and as it does in many Hutterite communities, it is positive as Hofer describes it when she observed how other colonies functioned. However, when community life breaks down, it can become destructive and harmful for its residents. In other words, it takes respect for all members, servant leadership, and patience to create the “best of worlds” in a community.
The two books by The Nine are sharply negative about Hutterite community life. The Nine say they left in order to be obedient to the Lord’s calling, to find new personal spiritual life in Jesus Christ, and to become more fully part of the Canadian and American societies. The lure of personal shopping, banking, owning property, and simply being Canadian or American, are recurring themes in their stories. They wanted to wear “regular” clothes like jeans and toppers, have a driver’s licence, be in charge of their own finances, enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness “(quoted from the US Declaration of Independence), experience a personal faith, and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. At the heart, though, of their desire and critique, was their search for a new personal Christian faith. They feel they found this new faith within an evangelical, Pentecostal context outside a Hutterite community which they call The Ministry, a small church led by a charismatic leader.
These two books by The Nine reveal the “culture clash,” or the “religion clash” between Hutterites and the larger society. In communalism the identity of the individual is formed by being part of the community, by taking on roles and responsibilities within the community, by seeing the good of the community as greater than the wishes of the individual, and by nurturing faith in God through age-old patterns and rituals in church, school, and home. All of this The Nine rejected as man-made rules and traditions. Much of what The Nine were searching for could not be granted by their home communities, since to do so would have forced their home communities to cease being communal, and Hutterite.
There are, however, some things which The Nine wanted in their communities which could have been granted. More personal expressions of faith do not necessarily undermine communal living, and numerous Hutterite communities are moving in this direction. Equitable and even-handed exercise of power and authority where the voices of all are respected strengthens communal living – rather than threatening it. The Nine lamented the lack of higher education. Numerous communities today are offering more education, and investing heavily in new schools, with the latest in equipment and resources. Some communities are part of an IITV system in which students can complete their high school education. Others are enabling their young people to study at Brandon University in the Hutterite Education Program (BUHEP), at Canadian Mennonite University, or at the University of Manitoba. A recurring theme in the stories of The Nine is internal conflicts in the communities, some going on for generations. Resolving conflicts does not undermine communal living – it strengthens it.
These five books, all but one of which is self-published, provide readers with a view of Hutterite life from the perspective of their unhappy experiences. In the process, the books highlight some of the challenges and issues facing Hutterite communities. Only to a limited extent, primarily in Kirkby’s books, do readers see the potential strengths and blessings of communal living.
Based on my years of contact with Hutterites, these books do not provide readers with a balanced view of life in Hutterite communities. Many Hutterite leaders and members are well aware of the challenges and problems facing their communities today, and are seriously trying to address them by making positive changes.
Despite these changes which are happening among Hutterites on a large and rapid scale, even if not in all communities, some young people will continue to leave. Some will leave because they are impatient at the rate of change, or because in their particular community problematic issues are not addressed adequately, or because they desire the individualized life style or faith expressions of the larger society, many of which are incompatible with communal living. Many will, however, stay and help build communities that witness to the central Christian faith affirmations, and historic Hutterite beliefs, of love, commitment, forgiveness, sharing, and caring for each other.
John J. Friesen
Upholding the Old, Embracing the New: The Life of P.J.B. Reimer – Teacher, Minister, and Mennonite Historian
by Diane Hildebrand, Steinbach: Sydney Reimer, 2014, 303 pages, softcover, $20.00
Mr. Peter J. B. Reimer (P.J.B.) was a schoolteacher, church minister, Mennonite historian, and Kleine Gemeinde stalwart. He played a leading role in founding Steinbach Bible College, creating the Mennonite Heritage Village, and establishing Eden Mental Health Centre – all the while, for forty-one years, serving as a fulltime schoolteacher in six different Mennonite communities in southern Manitoba.
In Upholding the Old, Embracing the New: The Life of P.J.B. Reimer – Teacher, Minister, and Mennonite Historian, Diane Hildebrandt chronicles Mr. Reimer’s life through his own writings – journals, articles, reports, and letters. At one level, Hildebrandt’s work is a record of Mr. Reimer’s thoughts, impressions, and feelings on momentous events (and not so momentous) in his life and in the life of his family, church, community and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC). On another level, it is an intimate portrayal of a man and his innermost thoughts and motivations. At times you want to cheer him on, swept up with empathy and eenijchtjeit (‘of one mind’), at other times you feel his weakness and hurt and want to look away, and still other times you are moved by his thoughtfulness and insight. It is as though P.J.B. is sharing his personal life and thinking with you, the reader, alone. Hildebrandt makes this possible by using lengthy quotes, mostly from Mr. Reimer’s journals, and interweaving them smoothly and seamlessly. Her editorial comment and framing is minimal, seemingly only in the service of coherence and context. What is left is Mr. Reimer’s voice – unvarnished, independent, and true.
In the end, the reader gets a sense of a man, who struggled mightily, and vulnerably, with reconciling his progressive impulses with the conservative leanings of the Kleine Gemeinde (EMC) – a church conference to which he was deeply committed; and of someone who wanted to be understood for his views and recognized for his contributions, but admitting to needing to ‘leave it in God’s hands,’ as, after all, it was ‘all God’s work.’ At the same time, in the background, the reader perceives a church community that is also struggling – a historically conservative conference seeking to reconcile its theology and adapt its practices to a new country in a rapidly changing world.
In his writings – articles, letters, reports, and personal journals – Mr. Reimer gave us a gift: insight into who he was, and the times and places in which he lived. The book, Upholding the Old, Embracing the New is a unique and invaluable resource for understanding the man, his times, his faith – and Kleine Gemeinde history. Thank you Mr. Reimer, for your words and your life. Thank you Diane Hildebrand for gifting us with P.J.B.’s voice.
A Mennonite in Russia. The Diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851-1880.
by University of Toronto Press, 2013, xiv + 456 pages, paperback, $39.95
The decision to release this fine work in paperback (originally published in hardcover in 1999) provides us all with the opportunity to re-evaluate A Mennonite in Russia. Not all works stand the test of time, but this one clearly has. It is worth asking why.
Jacob D. Epp deserves much of the credit for this. We might call him a true “renaissance man”. Born in 1820 into a family of prominent churchly leaders, Epp was by turns a lay minister, elementary school teacher, village secretary, farmer, husband and father. He died in 1890, having lived in several different settings including the original Khortitsa colony, a mixed Jewish-Mennonite settlement, and a Mennonite daughter colony.
For all that, Epp lived a modest life, and might have slipped away without notice but for two reasons.
The first is this: he wrote interesting diaries. Indeed, he wrote a diary for more than forty years, starting on the very booklet where his recently deceased father’s diary had left off. And he continued to write until close to his death. What do we find in his daily jottings? We find a great deal actually, for what makes Epp so fascinating is that he was so fascinated by the world around him.
Thus he records the seemingly mundane matters of agricultural cycles and climactic changes (though we now know that drought and climate change are not trivial matters in our time); but he cared no less about Mennonites as a people. A devout Christian, he could not help but notice when some Mennonites strayed far from their faith even as others held it fast. He recorded sexual transgressions as confessed by others, natural disasters from floods to fire, but he also recorded his own oft repeated prayer that he might stay faithful to his Lord. Indeed, one of the great beauties of this book is that a reader can open it up almost randomly and simply start reading. In every sense the stories will carry you.
There is a second reason why Jacob D. Epp and his diaries have not disappeared from view, and that is the vital role played by Harvey L. Dyck, the work’s editor and translator. Both roles are vital and Dyck is masterful throughout. Dyck has edited the diary entries to approximately a third of the original (p.6). He removed repetitions. This volume also reads so well because Dyck wisely chose to translate and edit Epp’s prose in a living, organic manner; what Dyck calls “a relative free rendition.” It clearly works.
As importantly, Dyck begins this volume with a strong introduction. Readers could do worse than purchase the book for this alone as Dyck places the life of this “everyman” – Jacob Epp – against the full backdrop of nineteenth century Imperial Russian and Mennonite history. Though Epp’s story is only part of the whole, Dyck is able to use it in such a way as to illuminate the larger picture.
So why should non-academics bother with this book? I want to suggest that this work can play a vital role in our understanding of the Mennonite past, let alone its present. Too often Russian Mennonites have been cynically portrayed as a rather faithless people who sold their souls for material wealth and lived in isolated villages until crushed by a revolution that they somehow deserved. But Epp – in Dyck’s skillful hands – reminds us that such a reading is more caricature than reality. In truth Mennonites in Russia lived real lives, and were fully alive to the larger empire. It is their very humanity that shines through in A Mennonite in Russia, and makes it an important read for our time.
Neubergthal: A Mennonite Street Village, A Sense of Place with Deep Roots
by Friesen, Joyce and Rose Hildebrand., eds., Neubergthal History Book Committee: Neubergthal, Manitoba, 2013, pp. 205, hardcover, $60.00
As any historian will attest, primary source material offers an incomparable, yet necessary depth to our understanding of bygone days. As many will also verify, primary sources can oftentimes be incredibly difficult to locate. Sifting through archives in search of any possible material that will illuminate daily life in a particular place and the customs, thoughts, and beliefs of its people is not a task for the faint of heart. The twelve-person local ‘History Book Committee’, headed by writers and editors Rose Hildebrandt and Joyce Friesen, compiled, researched, and scripted Neubergthal: A Mennonite Street Village. This impressive collection of primary sources fills in a number of gaps in our understanding of both pioneer and contemporary Mennonite life in Manitoba and illuminates a community history and memory that is matchless and rich in culture. This book is an exciting anthology of life histories, photographs, family memories, maps, and folklore from an important group of researchers (people who have for generations called Neubergthal ‘home’) that will serve as an invaluable resource for scholars, community historians, and the decedents of Neubergthal’s settlers, alike.
Neubergthal is located along a single street in south-central Manitoba at the crossroads of Provincial Road 421, and Road 1 W, 117 kilometers south of Winnipeg. It consists of six sections of land within the boundaries of the once-upon-a-time designated Mennonite West Reserve. As detailed in “Chapter 2: Village Patterns,” Neubergthal was settled in 1876 by a group of Mennonite families who had, only a few years prior, emigrated from Russia. In contrast to the East Reserve settlements, the agricultural potential of the land on the West Reserve was apparent, despite the difficulties of settling on open, tall grass prairie, the scarcity of wood, and its distance from a water source. With steadfast persistence, the village was settled in a way that reflected the pioneers’ collective experience and worldview—a merging of Dutch, German, and Russian architectural styles, and a combination of private and communal spaces for farming and dwelling. In 1989, The National Historic Sites and Monuments Board recognized the village as a ‘National Historic Site,’ for this Mennonite single street village, or ‘Strassendorf,’ possesses a great deal of architectural significance, resource integrity, and a unique sense of place. This book communicates the village’s distinctiveness.
Today, the village maintains nostalgic charm, reflective of its near 150-year history. The village street is neatly lined with the now tall, arching Cottonwoods and Manitoba Maples, planted by the original settlers. Perpendicular to the street are the narrow lots and homes of village residents. Some residents continue to live in traditional housebarns that are original to the settlement. In front of the homes are immaculate gardens; behind them are stretching acres of farmland. “Chapter 1: Remembering Our Roots,” which makes up nearly half of the book, details the settlement tales and generations of family memories from each yard in the village, while “Chapter 12: Neubergthal Now,” brings readers to the present day. The clever accompanying village maps inside the front and back covers help readers to follow along with generations of “yard stories,” while providing a clear sense of locale and peoplehood. These pioneer tales and family memories offer readers honest reflections of the hardships, sorrows, and humorous delights of village life.
“Chapter 3: Agricultural Life in the Village,” stands out in its communication of everyday village life, alongside seasons of seeding and threshing, hog butchering, chicken coops, and sugar beets. Particularly striking are the photographs and stories of harvest time through to the 1930s. Depicted here are farm crews and their families gathered around long tables set with china and hot meals, in the midst of a partially harvested crop. So the story goes, most women also owned a special pie cabinet for harvest season, which could hold up to five warm pies. Such a tool made it possible to transport even cream pies to the field (115)!
“Chapter 4: The Role of Women,” offers an intergenerational social history of the changes accompanied by the advent of modern conveniences such as home electricity and refrigeration. Though pioneer women’s roles were defined according to their gender, meaning child rearing, gardening, cooking, canning, and cleaning were central to their daily lives, this chapter also reflects on women’s esteemed innovative abilities (learning how to cook with plants and berries that grew alongside the Red River), artisan dexterities (colorfully hand painted housebarn floors, quilts, and weaving), and their efforts to preserve traditions surrounding gardening (saving seeds that are still used in Neubergthal gardens today).
“Chapter 5: Social Life in the Village,” another favorite, is an exceptional collection of written villager accounts of unique social and cultural customs in Neubergthal. From descriptions of the tradition of Fensta beluere, or window watching, to Brommtopp songs and mumming on New Year’s Eve, Lover’s Lane, Sunday courting rituals, impromptu country dances, and ever-changing fashion, this chapter details a distinctly edifying community memory of fun and home.
As an historian of culture and emotion among Mennonites in Manitoba, this book has served me well as a collection of primary sources. Though this is not a scholarly text, evident with its lyrical style, lack of citations, and emphasis on photographs, this is a community history filled with descriptions of long lost customs, and in its recollection, of a place central to West Reserve Mennonite culture and memory. Neubergthal: A Mennonite Street Village will be a treasured source for scholars with an interest in early migration to the prairies, the complexity of religious history, and memory. More specifically, this book will be an important source for those keen to uncover some of the intricacies in the relationship between an evolving ethno-religious people and a place.