January 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 1 · pp. 37–39 

Book Review

The Wanderers

Ingrid Rimland. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1977. 323 pages.

Reviewed by Wilfred Martens

How does a people tell its “story”? How do we record our past? A variety of forms are available to tell the story: drama, poetry, fiction, biography, memoirs, journals, history. It is only recently that Mennonites have begun seriously to explore the wide range of media which can be used to transmit our story.

We have been, and still are, a people which leans heavily upon the historian to tell our story. But history (as does each genre) has its limitations—some self-imposed. Some of our Mennonite historians record our story as if they were scientists or theologians rather than humane scholars. Some accounts come off as dull and scholarly, intended for the archives instead of the living room. The emphasis on gathering, collating, and organizing data often gets more attention than the “spirit” of the account. As a result, many readers get the impression that the story of the Mennonites is also dull and somber—as if we were a people who lived in a world devoid of experience! Historians have given us a partial picture of our past—not so much the fault of the historians, I might add, as the unavailability of records. Our story has been the story of men written by men. Unfortunately, the women and children have been largely ignored. But a complete story must account for the women and children. Where the historian is limited in this respect, the novelist begins.

We need a variety of forms to tell our story, forms which include experience as well as fact, dreams as well as data. Our story is more than verifiable data with assumptions based upon that data. It is dreams and visions, emotions and crises, blunders and fears, hopes and prayers. It is important that we pass on these unverifiable aspects as well. To do so we need more historians with imagination and more novelists—poets with historical integrity.

Rimland, in The Wanderers, tells her story as a novel—she presents history with imagination. Her emphasis is not on historical data but upon human experience. It is history, but history in another mode. It is her story in disguise—our story in disguise.

Rimland as a child of seven made the journey of a thousand kilometers from a village in the “old colonies” of Russia to Berlin. As part of the refugee movement which was a consequence of the devastation of World War II, she made this journey with her mother and grandmother from Halbstadt in the Ukraine to the American {38} sector of Berlin during some of the most severe months of the war. Her Lutheran father, the principal of a secondary school, was exiled to a Siberian concentration camp.

The story is told by, and is about, three women. Grandmother Katya is the dominant character in the novel. She is the daughter of a Mennonite elder, Johann Klassen. As a result of the rape of Katya by the ruthless bandit Nesto Razin, Sara is born. Sara’s bright but headstrong daughter Karin completes the story in the village of Neuland in Paraguay where the family had journeyed at the end of the war.

For a person who learned English only a few years ago, Rimland writes like a seasoned novelist. At times, as when she catalogs items or describes details, her prose is clumsy. But those moments are few. She frequently writes as a poet, with fresh imagery: “The land, having sucked in the heat of the day, kept pouring it back long after sundown in gulps of somewhat stale but comforting warmth.” Or the description of the refugees joining the retreating German troops: “There was something powerfully fascinating in this caterpillar without tail. It seemed to her a monster of iron feet, of wheels and hoofs and rubber, pushing its way toward the west—across meadows at times, across planks thrown over ditches and creeks, across torn-up railroad tracks, circumventing broken bridges, dipping into yellowing forests and emerging after hours on the other side of the earth.” It is poetic prose which draws us into the experience in a refreshing manner. One can sense the intimate relationship between the author and the girl Karin, and their reverence for language: “She knew that she was quicker of mind and quicker of words than he. She had an unfailing ear for the finest shades of meaning, and she loved what she could do with language.”

The novel fills an historical void: it provides insights into the lives of Mennonite women who were left behind after the men were taken away. The tempo ranges from cruel exploitation to happy domesticity as the lives of the three women are described during the years 1914-1957. Rimland’s style is both active and passive. She is intense and hits hard at times; she is also soft and feminine. She uses a wide range of effects to describe the experiences of her characters. It is good writing. One cannot help but suffer with Katya as she attempts to understand her own feelings toward her illegitimate daughter. And we share the frustration of Karin as a teenager in a tight Mennonite village in Paraguay—a girl who searches for the intellectual and social freedom which her culture will not allow.

The Wanderers is a valuable book both as history and as fiction. As history it fills the gaps between dates and places with human experience. As fiction it gives us a more comprehensive picture of our {39} past than history alone could. It is an interesting story about Mennonites. It is a good novel.

Wilfred Martens
Fresno Pacific College
Fresno, California