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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 266–268 

Book Review

Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature

Robert Zacharias. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2013. 227 pages.

Reviewed by Dora Dueck

Several months before reading this study of Mennonite literature by Robert Zacharias, I re-read one of the books he discusses, namely, Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China. The book caught me up again into its roiling passion and ethical dilemma, the writing sometimes unbearably convoluted, sometimes astonishingly brilliant, and always, like a figure running in tandem, I knew I’d been there before. I kept remembering and recognizing, as if startled, how strongly the book had shaped me as a young Mennonite woman back in the 1970s, and how it marked me still.

I experienced a similar sense of lively jostling between memory of narrative’s effects and new encounter with “returned-to” texts in Rewriting the Break Event, Zacharias’s thoroughly-argued, fascinating study of four novels in the Canadian Mennonite Literature canon: Al Reimer’s My Harp is Turned to Mourning, Arnold Dyck’s Lost in the Steppe, Sandra Birdsell’s The Russländer, and Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China. The literature to which these four belong is a critical construct “with its own history and its own set of assumptions,” he reminds; it emerged within the push that began in the 1960s to recognize Canadian society as multicultural. In the context of this “nationalizing project of Canadian literature as an institution,” Mennonite identity in Canada is a form of ethnicity.

Further, all four deal with what Zacharias, a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo and a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto, calls the “break event” for Canadian Mennonites: the rise and {267} then collapse of the so-called Mennonite Commonwealth in the Russian Ukraine. This story, told repeatedly, has become, in the Russian Mennonite imagination, a mythological beginning and thus central to identity.

In his lengthy introduction, Zacharias summarizes that event (conscious that his overview is a “re-telling” too) and draws on the work of Benedict Anderson and Paul Ricoeur to discuss the relation between literature and the formation of collective identity. In chapter 1, he delves into Mennonite history and literature in more depth, and in chapters 2 to 5, he analyzes the novels mentioned above as four “strains” of the retelling project: theo-pedagogical narrative, ethnic narrative, trauma narrative, and meta-narrative.

My Harp is Turned to Mourning is theo-pedagogical narrative; that is, it envisions a fully religious perspective on events. Here Zacharias uses Janice L. Dick’s Out of the Storm as a comparative foil of sorts to Reimer’s book because “their striking thematic similarities illustrate how extensively the biblical paradigm structures a theological rendering of the Russian experience.” Temporality (the experience of time) is both secular and sacred, and both have a linear structure that presents as accurate history, though Dick celebrates the faith community while Reimer interrogates it.

In Arnold Dyck’s Lost in the Steppe, Mennonite history in Ukraine is imagined as that of a Völklein (ethnic community) “with the Commonwealth itself serving as its timeless, originary landscape.” The religious element is mostly absent, or taken for granted. Temporality here is a sense of outside time; there’s no messianic time, for the community itself is sacred.

In The Russländer, which opens by announcing the death of major characters (author Birdsell said she wanted readers to pay attention to these lives), the focus is on the individual as an individual within the community rather than “representative” of community. Zacharias reads this novel as trauma narrative and an “extended critique of the adoption of individual trauma narratives in the construction of communal identity.” What’s at stake, he asks, when that happens?

Zacharias considers The Blue Mountains of China a meta-narrative. Perhaps anticipating that some readers, like me, might call it theo-pedagogical, Zacharias states that Wiebe’s novel focuses not on the Mennonite commonwealth of the Russian story, but moves towards a much larger and disparate picture of the global Russian Mennonite diaspora. Its central story of dispersal works against a “one true self” tradition, he says, to suggest that “deep differences . . . constitute who we really are.”

In the conclusion, Zacharias argues that his study belongs not only in Canadian literary studies but in the field of migration or diaspora studies as well. He acknowledges that viewing Mennonite literature as diasporic runs counter to the dominant critical discourse of diaspora studies “in part {268} because of the ‘whiteness’ of Mennonite identity,” but insists—rightly I think—that Mennonites are or have been diasporic and that Mennonite literature is definitely a player in migration literature.

Rewriting the Break Event is dense and rich. It proposes fresh categories for key Mennonite Canadian texts and digs down theoretically into a variety of matters such as the fitness of novels for religious concerns, the Mennonite identity crisis, temporality, and traditions of repetition. While Zacharias places Mennonite Canadian literature as a critical construct into its larger national and historical chronology, he treats the four novels thematically and thus out of chronological sequence. I wonder if their chronology may not be more significant than this implies, with Dyck’s work the earliest and appearing in translation (the shift from German to English surely crucial in Mennonite literary production) and Birdsell’s the last. He might also have attended to shifts within the Mennonite critical enterprise as it moved generationally from a group of scholars associated with the then-new Chair of Mennonite Studies in Winnipeg to a younger cohort figuratively clustered about Hildi Froese Tiessen in Waterloo. But perhaps these shifts are too recent, too close, to lay out, especially with Zacharias potentially poised as a third shift on their heels. He is, at any rate, a strong and compelling new voice in Mennonite studies.

Dora Dueck, Winnipeg, is the author of the award-winning novel, This Hidden Thing, and winner of the High Plains Book Award for short fiction for her short story collection What You Get at Home (Turnstone Press, 2012). Most recently, her story “Mask” won the 2014 Novella Prize awarded by The Malahat Review.

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