Books

Pacifist and doomed

Two Canadian novelists of Mennonite background look to their people’s past

BRIAN BERGMAN October 22 2001
Books

Pacifist and doomed

Two Canadian novelists of Mennonite background look to their people’s past

BRIAN BERGMAN October 22 2001

Pacifist and doomed

Two Canadian novelists of Mennonite background look to their people’s past

BRIAN BERGMAN

Books

Canada is a country of displaced peoples. Whether Scottish Highlanders cruelly expelled from their homeland in the 18th century, impoverished Irish farmers fleeing famine in the 1840s, or, more recently, Vietnamese boat people desperately seeking a safe harbour in the 1980s, many people came here to start anew. The Mennonites, a religiousethnic group that has endured repeated persecution, are very much a part of this tradition. Fleeing violence and repression in the 1870s and again in the 1920s, thousands of Russian Mennonites found sanctuary in rural Canada, especially on the prairies, where they eventually prospered, like seeds landing on fertile soil.

Until recently, the Mennonite story— often bloody, tragic and steeped in the religious and political antagonisms of the past five centuries—has gone largely untold. But that is rapidly changing. This fall, two distinguished Canadian novelists, one a devout Mennonite and the other a disaffected daughter of the faith, have produced books that illuminate the Mennonite experience. In some ways, the novels are as distinct as their authors. In Sweeter than All the World (Knopf Canada, $35.95), Edmonton’s Rudy Wiebe combines a sweeping saga of Mennonite life dating back to the 16th century with the compelling tale of a contemporary Mennonite man who has lost his moral compass—and is quickly losing his family. In The Russländer (McClelland & Stewart, $34.99), recently shortlisted for the coveted Giller literary prize, Regina-based writer Sandra Birdsell focuses on a single character caught up in a particularly horrific moment in time: the Russian Revolution and its bitter aftermath, when pacifist Mennonites became an easy target for roving armies of bandits, murderers and rapists.

In the wake of Sept. 11, both books resonate in unexpected ways. Each contains heartrending depictions of what happens when innocent civilians are caught in the crosshairs of armed conflict. And both authors document in chilling, unsentimental prose man’s unspeakable capacity for cruelty towards his fellow man—more often than not, perpetrated in the name of God. These may be historical novels, but in an age when terrorists kill thousands on the pretence of a holy war and innocent civilians are caught up in retaliatory strikes, both books seem as relevant as today’s headlines.

The yellowed poplar leaves are rapidly falling on the northern prairie near Strawberry Creek, 80 km southwest of Edmonton. This area, where Rudy Wiebe and his wife, Tena, own a half-section of land, is almost identical to the northern Saskatchewan bush country where the novelist spent the first 12 years of his life. But what the Wiebes have erected here is a far cry from the compact log house plastered with mud where Rudy was born in 1934, the youngest of seven children in a Mennonite family that had fled Russia four years earlier. A spacious 11-bedroom lodge built of British Columbia Douglas fir overlooks a meandering creek where beavers busily construct less stately domiciles. For much of the year, community, church and business groups rent the property for wilderness retreats. The rest of the time it’s available for family get-togethers (the Wiebes have two grown children, two grandchildren and a large extended family) and as a quiet place for Rudy to write. It was here, in a second-floor bedroom with a grand view of the unspoiled bush, that Wiebe wrote much of Sweeter than All the World, his ninth novel.

In his latest book, 67-year-old Wiebe draws not only on his own family’s backstory, but from a deep well of Mennonite history. With the audacious confidence of a mature writer (Wiebe is a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Award, for 1973’s The Temptations of Big Bear and 1994’s A Discovery Of Strangers), he breathes life into a series of Mennonite characters, who tell their stories from beyond the grave, in the first person and in present tense. Among the novel’s voices are: the children of early Mennonite martyrs, who watch as their parents are tortured and burned at the stake in the 16th century for what the Roman Catholic Church considers heretical views; an 18th-century Mennonite artist forbidden to paint portraits, because his church considers them “graven images” that violate the Second Commandment; and a middle-aged woman who tries, but fails, to shield a loved one from rape and murder at the hands of Russian soldiers during the Second World War.

Book-ending the tale are two key characters, both named Adam Wiebe (the surname is extremely common among Mennonites), who exist four centuries apart. The first is a historical figure, a 17thcentury engineer in Danzig, Poland, where many Mennonites fled at that time to escape the Inquisition. This Adam is credited with inventing the world’s first cable-car system. The second Adam Wiebe is a fictional creation—born in northern Alberta in the 1930s to Russian parents—who becomes an affluent physician. The contemporary Adam indulges in a restless, adulterous lifestyle until he is brought up short by every parent’s nightmare: the sudden disappearance, and possible death, of his only daughter.

The structure of the novel allows Wiebe to deal with the Mennonite story on several levels. Perhaps most impressive is his ability to fictionally trace nearly five centuries of history without being the least didactic or dull. The Mennonites take their name from Menno Simons (1496-1361), a Roman Catholic priest who broke away from the church as part of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists sought to live out the Christian faith in the way they believed Jesus intended. Among other things, early Mennonites advocated adult, rather than infant, baptism, pacifism in the face of violence, and a withdrawal from worldly practices and institutions, including politics and government.

The first Mennonites were viewed as dangerous radicals by Catholics and Protestants alike, and endured persecution from all sides. Wiebe brilliandy evokes this grim era when he has a daughter recall the torture and execution of her mother at the behest of Roman Catholic authorities. A blacksmith appears at her mothers cell and orders the woman to stick out her tongue. “The smith,” says the narrator, “pushed the curled iron onto her tongue until the flanges spread her lips as wide and hard as possible. He pulled it off, hammered it a little tighter, then forced it on again. He was silent, efficient, well accustomed to intimate work on a shuddering womans face. He screwed the vise down to the point of steady blood, and finally, to make certain it would never slip, with tongs he took from out of his fire a white-hot iron. He laid that iron on the tip of my mothers tongue.”

The Mennonites’ refusal to take up arms repeatedly put them at odds with civil authorities, often forcing them to uproot themselves. Over the centuries, they progressively moved from their original homelands in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland to various points in Europe and, ultimately, to North America and beyond. (There are currendy about 200,000 Mennonites in Canada, most of them living in the western provinces.) Wiebe’s own father, Abram, an impoverished farmer from southcentral Russia, worked in the national forestry service as a conscientious objector during the First World War. The family (five of Wiebes six siblings were born in Russia) nearly starved to death under Stalin’s regime in the 1920s before narrowly escaping to Germany, and then to Canada, in 1930. They were the lucky ones: some of Wiebes relatives continued to face starvation or, worse yet, imprisonment and painful death in Stalin’s gulags.

In northern Saskatchewan, the Wiebes became part of a rugged Mennonite homesteading community. Despite being born into the Depression, Rudy recalls it as an oddly privileged childhood of playing in the bush while his parents and older siblings toiled the land. But at an early age, he learned of past sufferings as local families often gathered to tell stories about the Old Country and why they left it. Fie realized later, though, that he had been spared some of the gruesome details. “When people have suffered great personal trauma, they often don’t talk about it,” Wiebe said in a recent interview at his

Strawberry Creek lodge. “I mean, what do you do with the horrible things that happened to you? The last thing you want to do is inflict them on your own children.” Unlike his Russianborn siblings, who never made it past Grade 9, Wiebe went on to earn several university degrees and became a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Alberta (he retired in 1992). But while he has lived, and thrived, in the secular world, Wiebe remains a staunch Mennonite and a committed pacifist. When asked to ponder why God has allowed the Mennonites to suffer so much, Wiebe pauses a moment, then responds. “That’s a tough one,” he says. “You are almost faced with Sept. 11. Because there are horrors wrought in the name of God that most of us consider unthinkable. And they are often brought about by those who are most fanatical about what they understand God to be.” Faithful Mennonites, he adds, are just as determined that God wants mankind to eschew violence. “There’s a certain genius in that. If you don’t fight, you in a sense shortcircuit revenge. And if you short-circuit revenge, you help to destroy hatred. And hatred drives most of the world’s politics and history.”

Curled up in an easy chair in her Regina home, Sandra Birdsell is a surprisingly intense presence, a strong voice wrapped in a petite frame. As she describes the genesis of her new novel, The Russländer, it becomes clear that, like Wiebe, she was inspired by her own heritage. But there the similarities end. Though by birth halfMennonite (on her mother’s side; her father was French Métis and Catholic), Birdsell had a childhood aversion to most of her Mennonite relatives, finding them too judgmental and dour. It probably didn’t help that her mother beat her as a teenager for deciding to no longer attend church.

Beat her? “Yes,” says Birdsell matter-offacdy, “my mother beat us, quite regularly. And the hard part was being sent out in the yard to find a stick for her to do it with. If you didn’t find a good strong one, someone else got it for you.”

In fact, the 59-year-old author actively resisted writing about Mennonites for many years. She finally did so, she says, to try to better understand her mother, who emigrated with her family from Russia in 1923 at the age of 12, setding in Morris, Man., 60 km south ofWinnipeg. She also wanted to understand the great-aunts who had been beautiful young women in Russia, but seemed so bleak and morose in Canada, and her great-grandmother who “could not go to sleep at night until she poked under her bed with a broom.” As a child, Birdsell was told little about what her family suffered during the Russian Revolution. “My mother had a stock answer,” she recalls with a smile. “She would say, ‘Russia was very beautiful, but it was an evil place.’ ” Later she learned that her grandfather was falsely accused of criticizing the Communists in 1921. “He ended up in prison with about 10 other men,” says Birdsell. “Every morning, someone would be taken out and shot after a fake tribunal.” Her grandfather was eventually freed, but the family, along with thousands of other Mennonites, continued to suffer. Typhoid, malnutrition and starvation all took a grim toll, while bands of soldiers and anarchists murdered and raped. “Some things are not talked about,” says Birdsell quietly. “Estimates are that the rape of women in some villages was almost 50 per cent. But you cannot find a person who will say they were raped. There’s a great reluctance to discuss it because, I think, some people felt guilty that they had somehow caused it. And women weren’t of marriageable state if they had been raped.”

Birdsell learned some of this through extensive reading and poring over Mennonite archives, but also by visiting the areas of what is now Ukraine where her family once lived. All became grist for The Russländer, which tells the story of Katya Vogt, a teenager during the Russian Revolution who sees her ordered world descend into chaos. In the book’s climax, Katya’s parents and several other members of her family are slain by bandits. Birdsell is unsparing as she describes the young girl witnessing one of the brutal deaths: “It was then that Kolya swung the shovel, silencing Abram’s sputtering with a blow to the side of his head.” Next, Katya hears “a high-pitched sound that came from the back of a throat, becoming a scream as the first sabre slashed through Abram’s nightshirt, parting the flesh of his shoulder. Katya saw how white and shiny was his bone.”

Birdsell, the divorced mother of three grown children, says that researching and writing the novel has not made her feel any more like a Mennonite. She describes herself as “a person of faith,” but incapable of belonging to a church. But she has come to appreciate the contributions recent generations of Mennonites have made to medicine, science and the arts, as well as the many relief missions the Mennonite church runs to the world’s trouble spots.

Like Wiebe, Birdsell finds herself thinking a lot these days about one such point of conflict, and the curious ways that fiction sometimes mirrors reality. For her, it has to do with the utter fragility of human life. She notes how the Russian Revolution abruptly, and violently, ended the productive and prosperous lives many Mennonites had enjoyed at the time. “And that’s how I feel about those people who innocently went to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11,” she says. “Their stories have ended in the middle of the telling. And there’s just a great big missing hole in the earth because they are gone.”