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Mennonite CDN Fiction: List by Robert Zacharias
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Mennonite CDN Fiction: List by Robert Zacharias

By 49thShelf
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Robert Zacharias is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, and Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of Shifting the Ground of Canadian Literary Studies, and Associate Editor of the Journal of Mennonite Studies. Rewriting the Break Event is his first book. Robert Zacharias writes: "My most recent project, Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites & Migration in Canadian Literature, explores novels retelling the mass migration of Mennonites from Ukraine to Canada following the Russian Revolution. The tradition of Russian Mennonite writing in Canada is much larger than this single story, however, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight a few of my favourite Mennonite Canadian novels."
Irma Voth
Excerpt

Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
 
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
 
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
 
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
 
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
 
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
 
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
 
No, I really am, I said.
 
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
 
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
 
Questions about what? I asked him.
 
Anything, he said.
 
But about what? I said.
 
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
 
Some people are staring at us, he said.
 
No they’re not, I said.
 
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
 
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
 
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
 
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
 
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
 
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
 
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
 
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
 
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
 
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
 
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
 
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
 
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
 
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
 
I think so, I said.
 
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
 
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
 
So, he said. Why would you want to?
 
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
 
I don’t know, I said.
 
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
 
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
 
I’d rather not.
 
I was just saying stuff.
 
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
 
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
 
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
 
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
 
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
 
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
 
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
 
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
 
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
 
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
 
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
 
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
 
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
 
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
 
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
 
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.

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Why it's on the list ...
In Irma Voth, an eccentric Mexican filmmaker arrives on a Mennonite colony in northern Mexico, somehow having convinced the conservative Mennonites to act in a film. Irma serves as a translator for the film crew. Confusion and hilarity ensues, until Irma and her younger sister flee to Mexico City. Irma Voth is not as convincing or as tight as A Complicated Kindness, but I’m choosing it because it shows Toews reaching for a larger ethical canvas. Irma is as whip smart as and acerbic as Nomi Nickel was in her critique of fundamentalism, but in Irma Voth, Toews risks offering answers to the questions she raises, exploring the redemptive power of art and the fragile possibilities of forgiveness. E.B. White once suggested that the best comedic writing evokes laughter and tears, and that humour “plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.” In the places where Irma Voth succeeds, the heat will take your breath away.
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The Russlander
Why it's on the list ...
The framing narrative of Birdsell’s novel has the elderly Katherine Vogt recount her life story for a young archivist who is collecting oral histories for the Mennonite archives in Saskatchewan. Although the bulk of The Russländer is composed of Katherine’s memories of growing up in the once-prosperous Mennonite colonies of Ukraine – including her escape to Canada following the massacre of her family as the colonies collapsed in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution – Birdsell keeps the framing narrative close at hand throughout the book. The result is a haunting account of Katherine’s childhood that is deeply coloured by the losses she endures as a young woman. This is a beautifully crafted story of trauma and survival that shows the end of an idyllic world that had stretched thin in its attempts to cover a host of class, gender, and ethnic inequalities.
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The Matter With Morris
Why it's on the list ...
Morris Schutt is a middle-aged man whose comfortable life as a syndicated newspaper columnist is shattered when his son his killed in Afghanistan. Shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2010, The Matter with Morris is an introspective novel, a portrait of a man who, having had his assumptions about the world exposed as false, finds himself adrift and floating through a bleakly drawn Winnipeg. Estranged from his wife and daughter, Morris bounces from therapy sessions to men’s groups filled with “incredibly average” people in a search for meaning and belonging. This is a novel populated by flawed but deeply human characters, people with whom we may not always sympathize, but with whom we can’t help but empathize, having recognized ourselves within them. The Matter with Morris crackles with what has become a hallmark of Bergen’s novels: the tension between a deceptively simple matter-of-fact prose and the self-consciously philosophical concerns it explores.
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Why it's on the list ...
Part of a long comedic tradition in Mennonite writing that includes the work of Arnold Dyck and Paul Heibert, Wiebe’s novel is a snort-your-coffee-out-your-nose funny tour through rural Mennonite that celebrates the rich textures of the culture. It tells the story of Yasch Siemens, a hapless young man eager to move up in his world by getting married and securing a farm of his own – and of Oata Needarp, the indefatigable woman that “helps” him do both. In this startlingly original novel, written in an English heavily coloured by what his characters call Flat German, Wiebe creates a fully realized world that is as fascinating as it is entertaining. It also has one of the most memorable opening lines in all of Mennonite literature, one that gives a good sense of what is to follow throughout the book: “The year they built the TV tower I was heista kopp in love with Shaftich Shreeda’s daughter, Fleeda.”
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When I Was Young and In My Prime

When I Was Young and In My Prime

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Excerpt

Terrible to say, but there's a glamour in decay. All the sugars rising to the surface. Even the making of wine is a kind of controlled decomposition.

The last days have an atmosphere in which everything stands out, back-lit, finite. Photographers call it magic hour. As if death, closer now, closer every day, radiates a kind of pre-storm light.

And then that pre-storm light lasts for a spell after death--for the living. Basic things take on new definition, demand attention, but resist naming.

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Why it's on the list ...
Compared to more celebrated recent books such as Darcie Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance or Carrie Snyder’s wonderful The Juliet Stories, Munce’s novel went unnoticed upon publication in 2005. But its spare and evocative prose, hung loosely over a poetic structure, makes When I was Young as rewarding and consistently surprising a novel as I’ve read in years. It tells the story of Helena Friesen, a young woman living in the Parkdale area of Toronto at the turn of the millennium. Helena’s self-conscious efforts to live an ethical life come to centre on her relationship with her Russian Mennonite immigrant grandparents as they transition through the various stages of old age. The result is a deeply affective meditation on aging and contemporary urban life, and a compelling portrait of the shifting structure of contemporary Mennonite identity.
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Sweeter Than All The World
Excerpt

One

Speaking Waskahikan
Waskahikan, Northern Alberta

1942

In summer the poplar leaves clicked and flickered at him, in winter the stiff spruce rustled with voices. The boy, barefoot in the heat or trussed up like a lumpy package against the fierce silver cold, went alone into the bush, where everything spoke to him: warm rocks, the flit of quick, small animals, a dart of birds, tree trunks, the great fires burning across the sky at night, summer fallow, the creek and squeaky snow. Everything spoke as he breathed and became aware of it, its language clear as the water of his memory when he lay against the logs of the house at night listening to the spring mosquitoes find him under his blanket, though he had his eyes shut and only one ear uncovered.

Everything spoke, and it spoke Lowgerman. Like his mother. She would call him long into the summer evening when it seemed the sun burned all night down into the north, call high and falling slow as if she were already weeping: “Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo . . . .”

And when he appeared beside her, she would bend her powerful hands about his head and kiss him so warm his eyes rang.

“Why don’t you answer, you?” she would say against his hair. “Why don’t you ever answer? The bush is so dark and I listen and listen, why don’t you ever say a word?” — while he nuzzled his face into the damp apron at the fold of her thigh. And soon her words would be over, and he would feel her skin and warm apron smelling of saskatoon jam and dishes and supper buns love him back.

His sister laughed at his solitary silence. “In Waskahikan School are twenty-seven kids,” Margaret said, “you’ll have to talk, and English at that. You can’t say anything Lowgerman there, and if you don’t answer English when she asks, the teacher will make you stand in the corner.”

“R-right in f-f-f-f-ront — of — people?” he burst out fearfully.

“Yeah, in front of every one of them, your face against the wall. So you better start talking, and English too.”

And she would try to teach him the English names for things. But he did not listen to that. Rather, when he was alone he practised standing in the corners of walls. Their logs shifted and cracked, talking all the time like happiness; logs were very good, especially where they came together so hard and warm in winter.

Outside was even better. He followed the thin tracks of a muskrat that had dented the snow with its tail between bulrushes sticking out of the slough ice, or waited for the coyote in the field along the hill to turn and see him, one paw lifted and about to touch a drift, its jaw opening to its red tongue smiling with him. Then suddenly cock its ears, and pounce! double-pawed into a drift, burrowing deeper. In summer he heard a mother bear talk to her cubs among the willows of the horse pasture near the creek. He did not see them, but he found their tracks in the spring snow behind the spruce and his father said something would have to be done if they came any closer to the pigpen. The boy knew his father refused to own a gun, but their nearest Ukrainian neighbour gladly hunted everywhere, whatever he heard about, and so he folded his hands over the huge pawprints and whispered in Lowgerman.

“Don’t come here, not any more. It’s dangerous.”

The square school sat at the corner, below the hill where the road allowances crossed south over the creek and bent around the spruce muskeg towards their Mennonite church, and the store. Inside the church every Sunday there were hands waiting for him. At the top of the balcony stairs — which led up from the corner behind the men’s benches, under the sloped roof with the church Highgerman of people murmuring like rain below them and poplar leaves at the window — were the hands that found things inside him, and let them out. Thick hands with heavy, broad thumbs working against each other on his neck, pressing down, pressing together, bending his small bones until through his gaping mouth they cawed:

“C - c - c - - cat!”

“Yes, yes, like that, try to say it again, ‘cat.’”

And he would try, desperately, those marvellous hands holding him tight as if everything on earth were in its proper place, and all the brilliant sounds he could never utter when anyone listened coming out of him as easily, deeply, as if he had pulled a door open.

“Cat.”

“Yes, very good, now say, ‘Be sure your sin will find you out.’ Say it: ‘Be sure . . .’”

He knew find and you already, but sin? No one could find him in the bush, he did not need to say that; those English words, whatever they were, would never have to sit on the edge of his lips hissing. He drew his breath down, deep and safe.

“Ca-a-at,” he said firmly.

The post office was a wooden wicket folded open on Tuesday and Friday at the back of the store. There they got the Eaton’s winter or summer catalogues, and letters with stamps from Southern Alberta where his oldest sister Helen lived with her husband and Raymond, who came every summer to play with him in the bush behind the house. Mail came on the train, which he had never seen, but he heard it wailing faintly in the west, like an evening animal lost when light rises into mist along the creek. A sound so strange and far away that when it was gone he thought he might not have heard anything at all, it was only his longing for the white clouds of steam his oldest brother Abram had told him blasted out of the train when he worked laying steel rails on the ground for it, and blasting even whiter when it brought Abram back from Bible school at Christmas and he read the story of the Wisemen aloud in church and then prayed. The train, his brother said, went through the town of Boyle, three rows of houses on the edge of a wide valley. Almost a hundred people lived there, and the train ran along the big lake beyond it on steel straight as string. His father drove a wagon-load of grain, or pigs, to that town in fall when the mudholes on the road were frozen but the snow not too deep yet. And when he came back he said he had looked far across flat miles again at the rich valley farms they’d cleared there, red hip-roofed barns and white houses, all Swedes and Ukrainians because they got to their homesteads first, on the deep soil, not like their stone and clay where it wasn’t creek or slough or muskeg.

But the school had been at the crossroads since before the boy could remember, and now he tried not to look at it when they drove down the hill, though he knew the small panes of its five large windows stared at him as long as they passed. It was the Friday before the Monday when he would have to go there every day, like Margaret, that the planes came for the first time.

He was holding the parcel from Eaton’s, which he was certain contained the flannel shirt they ordered long ago for his first day in school, red check with black buttons, but his mother — “Don’t tear the paper!” — would never let him open anything before they got home. Their horses were so slow, good farm plugs, Schrugge, his brother John called them, pulling the wagon up the school hill as steadily as they always did, and it happened very fast, almost before he could look around. There had been a rumble from somewhere like thunder, far away, though the sky was clearest sunlight. His father had just said that in a week they might start bindering the oats, the whole field was ripening so well, and his mother sat beside him broad and erect, her braided hair coiled up in a bun under her hat, when suddenly the planes were there as a light flashed and he twisted to see, one after the other like four yellow-and-black fists punching low over them, louder than anything he had ever heard in his whole life. Roaring away north above the school and the small grain fields between poplars and sloughs and pastures and over all the trees to the edge of the world.

His father did not look up or around. His hands double-wrapped in the reins and his body braced to hold the terrified horses down, his voice was as sadly angry as an echo.

“Russia wasn’t enough, here they come out of the air.”

But the boy was looking at his mother. Perhaps his own face looked like that when next morning the yellow planes thundered over the school at recess, so low he saw horrible glass eyes in a sleek leather head glare down at him before he screamed and ran, fled inside to the desk where Margaret had told him he must sit. When he opened his eyes the face of the teacher was there, her gentle face very close, smiling almost upside down at him between the iron legs of the desk beneath which he curled, his new red-check shirt against the floor. Her gentle voice speaking.

“Come,” she said, “come.”

Her fingers touched his hair light as wind, and after a moment he twisted out and scrambled to his feet. He thought she was speaking Lowgerman because he did not yet know that what that word meant sounded the same in English. “Come.”

She led him past the amazing front wall that was “blackboard,” where that morning the white chalk between her fingers reaching out of her sky-blue sleeve drew the large letters of their school name:

WAS-KA-HI-KAN = HOME

She guided him through the rows of desks to a narrow cupboard against the wall opposite the windows, raised her thin hands, pulled, and two doors unfolded both at once. Books. He had never imagined so many books. Maybe a million.

She was, of course, speaking to him in English and years later, when he remembered that moment again and again, he would never be able to explain to himself how he understood what she was saying. The book opening between her hands showed him countless words: words, she said, that he could now only see the shape of, but would be able to hear when he learned to read because, she told him, the word read in English was the same as the word speak, räd in Lowgerman, and, when he could read, all the people of the world would speak to him. When he opened a book, he would hear what they had already said and continued to say, and he would understand.

He was staring at what he later knew were a few worn books on a few short shelves, and then looking back at the visible but as yet unintelligible words revealed by the book unfolded in her hands. And perhaps it was when her right hand reached down to touch his, hidden in his new shirt cuffs with their amazing black double buttons, when her fingers tightened and his hands clutched hers, perhaps then he slowly began to comprehend that there were shelves upon shelves of books on many, many floors inside all the walls of the enormous libraries of the world where someday he would go and read; that the knowing which she could help him discover within himself would allow him to hear human voices speaking from everywhere and every age, saying things both sweet and horrible, and everything else that might be imagined between them. And he would listen.

“A-a-da-a-am.”

His mother, calling into the long northern evening.

“Where a-a-re you?”

Two

Sailing to Danzig
Coaldale, Southern Alberta
1953

His name was Adam Peter Wiebe. When he began school he liked being “Adam.” No one else had that name, and everyone called him “Addie,” like his sister Margaret who at first knew everything. Then one summer a travelling preacher came driving his thin horse and buggy through the bush to the Waskahikan Mennonite Church and, leaning far over the pulpit, declared that ADAM meant “of the ground,” which was how God had created the first man on earth. Out of the ground. And that had happened 4,004 years before Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son! was born in Bethlehem of Judah.

The way that huge man told the first story in the Bible stayed with Adam all his life like a memory of blue and golden light. He never wanted to read it in Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible — which his mother ordered for him from the catalogue when she realized he would never stop reading–or spoil the story with heavy Luther Genesis. Adam, made of ground, moist earth changed into flesh by God breathing warm breath into a mouth cupped open between His great, all-powerful hands! Adam’s first job was to name every animal God had already created, such easy work, and then, as a reward, God fingered the most perfectly beautiful woman that ever lived — that was the Highgerman word the preacher used: God touched Adam under his left middle rib and He “fingered” it out to make Eve — and the preacher stepped away from the pulpit, lifted his huge hands high and shaped Eve’s head in the air between them and then slid them around her shoulders, down over her pointed breasts — all his life Adam would remember his hands’ turn there, so slow, ineffably gentle — and over her hips and along her long legs to her toes. And then, ahh then! Adam and Eve lived together in the most beautiful garden on earth, eating fresh fruit and playing with the gold and sweet gum and pearls and onyx stones that were in the four rivers that flowed out of Eden, and bathing in them too. It was always the perfect seventh day of creation, forever rest, forever summer.

Travelling preachers came to Waskahikan between haying and harvest. Sermons were every evening if it didn’t rain too hard and three times on Sunday. This evangelist, Groota Donnadach Peetash as he was called in Lowgerman, Big Thursday — thunder-day — Peters, said the title of his next sermon would be “The Heaviest Word in the World.” He was preaching in Highgerman of course and so when he said, “Sünde,” exactly that word was the heaviest, and the apple tree and Eve and the slimy snake and Adam eating, that was truly Sünde, der Grosse Fall, forever and all eternity for all men and women ever born and all nature, even for trees and small animals, the very mosquitoes were all groaning and travailing in pain to be delivered from man’s bondage of putrid corruption!

Instantly, small Adam detested that second part of the story; he knew he’d never be like that stupid First Adam and eat a snake’s apple. He’d stick with God; if He had the power to make it He had the power to take it away, and if Eve couldn’t figure that out, Adam certainly could. And at that moment, as he sat with the other small boys on the narrow front bench with Big Thursday looming over them, it struck Adam that if exactly Sünde was the worst word, he would from now on live only in English where exactly that word didn’t exist, and he could stay with beautiful Eve and nice God Almighty in the Beautiful Garden forever, no gigantic angels with flaming swords that turned every way east of Eden.

Die Sünde Adams! That was Big Thursday Peters, weeping and blowing his nose like a trumpet-blast into an enormous blue-striped handkerchief, thundering God’s eternal damnation and endless grace all at the same time. But it was Lowgerman that quickly betrayed Adam’s thinking; after only a year of learning to read English in school he was no longer aware of what language he thought in, nor even how he dreamed, and looking up from the church bench and seeing the setting sun flicker the fine spray of Big Thursday’s mighty words into intermittent, visible rainbows around his mouth, he was convicted in his heart that Sind was too close to sin for a simple English escape. Especially with his name.

Adam Peter: “ground,” “rock.” Adam realized his names were basically the same, one merely a more stubborn form of the other. And Sind or Sünde or sin were of course all one too, abominably everywhere, in any language; as his mother steadfastly reminded him.

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Why it's on the list ...
Wiebe’s ambitious novel, Sweeter than All the World, swings from nineteenth century Prussia to sixteenth century Netherlands, from eighteenth century London to contemporary Canada, from Prague to Bali, from Idaho to Siberia, and onwards. Anchored loosely but ably by the story of Adam Wiebe, a prosperous Canadian who looks to his Mennonite history as a way of navigating the complications of his own collapsing life, Sweeter evocatively juxtaposes our individual and collective efforts to belong and to construct meaning through our lives. Complex in structure yet beautifully direct in its aims, epic in scope yet intimate in detail, Sweeter than all the World may well be the one Mennonite Canadian novel being read a century from now.
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Rewriting the Break Event

Rewriting the Break Event

Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Despite the fact that Russian Mennonites began arriving in Canada en masse in the 1870s, Mennonite Canadian literature has been marked by a compulsive retelling of the mass migration of some 20,000 Russian Mennonites to Canada following the collapse of the “Mennonite Commonwealth” in the 1920s. This privileging of a seminal dispersal within the community’s broader history reveals the ways in which the 1920s narrative has come to function as an origin story, or “break event,” for the Ru …

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