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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 255–257 

Book Review

Daughters in the House of Jacob: A Memoir of Migration

Dorothy M. Peters, with Christine S. Kampen. Winnipeg, MB and Goessel, KS: Kindred, 2016. 275 pages.

Reviewed by Kathy McCamis

This book is a memoir that traces the “legacy of faith” and “inheritance of a vocational calling to pastoral and teaching ministry” (4) through four successive generations of the Doerksen family. Cousins Dorothy Peters, a professor of Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls, and Christine Kampen, a Mennonite Brethren pastor, trace their vocational calling back to their grandfather Jacob J. Doerksen, also a pastor. However, since Doerksen died while his own five children were still young, neither of the authors ever had the chance to meet him. Together Peters and Kampen set out to explore “the migration of a vocation across generations and gender in our family,” seeking to get to know their grandfather from whom they inherited this legacy of faith (5).

What began with the intention of writing a short article quickly expanded into a book project as Peters and Kampen traced their family roots through interviews with “elder-storytellers,” exploration of family photos and documents, and the discovery of additional historical documents that emerged as they began to research their family history. The book begins with each of the authors sharing her own life story, paying particular attention to themes of family, faith, and vocation. They then trace these same themes back in time as they narrate the stories of their parents, {256} grandparents, and great-grandparents. Readers learn about Peters’s father Leonard, a pastor and Bible school teacher, and Kampen’s mother Betty, whose pastoral gifts found expression in her role as a deacon. Then, through the life stories of grandparents Anna and Jacob, readers encounter the challenges of migration from South Russia to Canada. Jacob’s vocation as a Bible teacher and pastor is a central focus, but Anna’s efforts as a young widow to ensure her children had access to education are also recognized and honored. Finally, they trace the family legacy of storytelling and faith back to great-grandparents Jacob F. Doerksen and his wife Agatha, a woman of prayer with a strong storytelling voice of her own that was preserved thanks to an audiorecording of stories and poems shared with her son when she was ninety-one years old.

As the stories of successive generations of the Doerksen family unfold, their particular experiences add dimension and personality to larger themes within Mennonite history. The careful research done by the authors helps bring to life many of the challenges faced by Mennonite families as they migrated from South Russia to North America. History comes alive and is given texture and richness as the authors show how events like the Russian Revolution and the subsequent wave of Mennonite migration to Canada shaped the stories of individuals in this particular family tree.

Moreover, the authors take care not to select only stories that would shed a positive light upon their ancestors as they craft this family memoir; they are transparent about the challenges of writing a truthful memoir that honors the different voices and perspectives that they encountered as they spoke with different “elder-storytellers.” The authors do not shy away from presenting some painful aspects of the family’s history. The resulting work is both generous and honest, and offers a gift not only in capturing the legacy of this particular family for generations to come but also in contributing to the larger Mennonite Church a rich reflection on its shared history.

Given that this book began as a project to explore the inheritance of a vocational calling and its migration across generations and gender divides in this family, in the end vocation and calling are perhaps less significant themes in the completed work than are themes of storytelling, family, faith, and God’s faithfulness. It is clear that certain gifts and interests are shared by many of the members of the different generations of the Doerksen family—gifts that include teaching, a love of Scripture, and a deep respect and concern for mission and the church. These shared gifts have certainly helped to shape successive generations of church leaders and Bible teachers from this family, both male and female. However, to describe this as “the inheritance of a vocational calling” (4) risks failing to recognize that a vocation is not ultimately a hereditary trait. The word {257} vocation has as its roots the Latin word vocare—“to call”—a reminder that our vocations are always received as a gift from God, who does the calling, however that gift is received.

Nonetheless, this memoir has a great deal to offer in its illumination of Mennonite history and in its rich reflection on themes of faith, family, storytelling, and legacy that will interest readers from a broad range of backgrounds.

Kathy McCamis has an MA in Theological Studies from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg and is a member of Jubilee Mennonite Church.

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