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Spring 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 1 · pp. 112–113 

Book Review

This Hidden Thing

Dora Dueck. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2010. 327 pages.

Reviewed by Luann E. Hiebert

Is there a reader who does not desire to know the hidden stories and secrets that linger between the pages of a novel? The title points to the human longing to discover that which is unknown and the desire to hide that which seems private, even shameful.

Readers may recall Dora Dueck’s first novel, Under the Still Standing Sun (1989) and the adventures of sixteen-year-old protagonist Anna, a Mennonite resettling in Paraguay. Clearly interested in the Mennonite immigrant female experience, Dueck introduces her readers to another engaging female protagonist in her award-winning novel This Hidden Thing (McNally Robinson Book of the Year, 2011). This historical novel, set in Winnipeg, Manitoba, begins in January 1927 and follows the lives of Maria and the Klassen family for more than five decades.

Entering the story in medias res, the reader is struck by the first three words: “YOU’RE NOT WANTED” (13). For nineteen-year-old Maria, like so many Mennonite immigrants from Russia, the shock of resettlement in Canada comes quickly. She knows nothing of the English language and is “too fresh off the train” for Mrs. Lowry to consider employing her as a housemaid. It is a terribly cold day as Maria’s uncle tries to translate the significance of their plea to the Winnipeg woman: Maria’s parents and siblings are counting on her support. Finally hired on a trial basis, Maria has no idea how much this job will alter the rest of her life.

Maria exemplifies the Mennonite work ethic, quickly learning the English language and the demands of the Lowry household. Of course, she sends her earnings to her family struggling to establish themselves on a farm in southern Manitoba. Her determination to understand the new cultural and social expectations, her loneliness and separation from her family, and her growing desires as a young woman draw Maria into emotionally contending situations.

The novel is divided into two parts: the first gives an account of Maria’s five years of experiences working for the Lowry household; the second traces the next five decades of Maria’s life. Dueck’s novel does not merely follow a fictional plot; she has set her rich, engaging characters into a historical place and time. The Mennonite immigrants must not only learn to adapt to their new environment but also deal with the hardships brought on by significant historical events, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Winnipeg flood of 1950.

The Mary-Martha house—a meeting place for fun, fellowship, and spiritual encouragement in the north end of Winnipeg—is another example of Dueck’s historical research. She draws into the narrative perspectives {113} and stories of other Mennonite domestics for both reader and Maria to hear. Young women openly share their struggles with varied consequences: advice, emotional support for breakdowns, or rejection for confessing pregnancy.

Maria works hard at maintaining personal privacy and uses silence to grow her inner fortitude. She chooses her stories and memories carefully when writing letters to her family. Taking on the role of narrator, she selectively arranges the words on a page to (re)construct her identity. This (re)construction of the self is particularly clear in the opening lines of the second section of the novel: “Now, how to appear but still remain hidden? How to stay alert to the cracks of her secret? How to fill them in, rub the edges smooth so nothing would be visible?” (205).

Maria appears to be the model character. She saves Mrs. Lowry’s drowning son and takes care of her siblings after her mother dies. As her life unfolds, she becomes a matriarch in the Klassen family. She hosts family gatherings to celebrate such special occasions as Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and birthdays, all the while bearing the burden of “one small thing” which makes “a world of difference” (287). Like a long black thread that weaves through her life year after year, this “hidden thing” becomes a motivator to mould mercy into all of her relationships. Late into her adult years, the question lingers: should she break the secret and shatter the self she has so carefully constructed?

This Hidden Thing is insightful and compelling. Dueck sympathetically and adroitly translates Maria’s thoughts and experiences to gradually unveil her (extra)ordinary story. She exposes the constructed nature of human identity and demonstrates how language and storytelling simultaneously reveal and conceal. There will always be those who attempt to create the appearance of perfection, but there are cracks in every character, whether on the page or in reality. Maria is a fictional character, as Dueck reminds readers. However, one of the hidden strengths of this book is that she could just as easily be a relative.

Luann E. Hiebert is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and Instructor in English Literature at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba.

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