Prairie prose

Unger's playful debut novel offers good-natured ribbing of Mennonite culture


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This lightweight comic novel, which pokes gentle fun at small-town Mennonite mores, should find fans among those who like their humour free of bitter edge.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2020 (946 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This lightweight comic novel, which pokes gentle fun at small-town Mennonite mores, should find fans among those who like their humour free of bitter edge.

A first effort by Manitoba teacher and writer Andrew Unger, best known in these parts for his satirical Mennonite blog the Daily Bonnet, Once Removed has a whimsical tone reminiscent of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon novels.

Giller Prize nominee David Bergen can rest easy. Unger is not out to offend anyone. You don’t need to be a Menno to find him amusing, but it won’t hurt.

Erin Unger photo Andrew Unger is best known as the creator of the satirical website the Daily Bonnet.

Who else knew that housebarns could be the source of so much affectionate kidding?

Once Removed is set in the imaginary town of Edenfeld, a stand-in for Steinbach, one supposes.

After all, Edenfeld has produced a famous Canadian writer, “Elsie Dyck,” who was driven out of in the mid-’90s after writing ill of it. (It should be emphasized that Miriam Toews left Steinbach on her own steam years before writing A Complicated Kindness.)

Unger’s protagonist and first-person narrator is Timothy Heppner, a late-thirtyish ghostwriter of local family histories.

Because his wife, Katie, is still in graduate school (”gender performativity in traditional Mennonite households” being her thesis topic), Timothy picks up shifts with the town’s parks and rec department.

He has to worry about the vigorously pro-business mayor (and confirmed anti-Dyckite), “BLT Wiens,” who has never found an empty lot unsuited to a strip mall or liquor outlet.

“He has even constructed a new road called Megamart Way,” Timothy notes, “which tends to confuse out-of-towners when they discover it’s nothing but wishful thinking.”

Timothy has reason to suspect that Wiens is pressuring his ghostwriting clients to drop him because he is an active member of the regressive Edenfeld Preservation Society.

The society, heaven forbid, is lobbying for a commemorative plaque in front of the evil Dyck’s old family home.

Will they get their plaque? Will Timothy lose his job with “parks and wreck”? Will he work up the gall to write a book with his own name on it?

Such are the narrative tensions in Once Removed. But narrative tension is not the point here. Rather it is Unger’s good-natured plumbing of the Mennonite psyche and his lampooning of various cultural clichés.

He does this through a variety of minor characters. Some have tattoos, some brew beer, but all are extremely shrewd with a bargain.

Timothy and Katie are a conundrum. They are traditional but have no children. (The lack of procreative pressure the couple faces seems a misstep on Unger’s part).

Both are university educated, but neither has a thought beyond their village. Winnipeg, by the way, goes unnamed. It is always “the city.”

Though Unger salts the text with Plautdietsch, Timothy is definitely a generation removed from Armin Wiebe’s Yasch Siemens.

Like Wiebe, Unger glories in puns and other witticisms. BLT wants to modernize Edenfeld’s name: “Pretty Plain” sounds good to him. The town library offers a course called “Computer Use for Mennonites and Other Beginners.”

Unger’s title, meanwhile, puns on the alleged inbred nature of rural Mennonites.

Another subject of humour is the area’s church denominations. “They agree on almost nothing,” Timothy notes, “except that the Lutherans got it all wrong with the whole baptising babies thing.”

Unger has a touch as sweet as roll kuchen. In his next outing, he should extend his comic reach. He could make fun of “the city.”

Morley Walker is a retired Free Press journalist.

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