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Stories of Mennonite life shine a light on a sad reality

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/1/2011 (3320 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THIS slender book of 11 short stories is a complex treasure. Each story is wrapped in themes of anger, guilt and the Mennonite work ethic. Thankfully, the jagged edges of this treasure are gilded, occasionally, with grace and hope.

Mennonites Don't Dance is the first book from Darcie Friesen Hossack, who is based in Kelowna, B.C., but probably comes from Saskatchewan, given the contents here. Her writing is crisp, evocative and spellbinding, her characters and plots strong.

Almost all the stories are set in southern Saskatchewan, somewhere outside of Swift Current, in the 1970s and '80s. With black humour and shrewd wit, they explore family relationships.

Mental illness in its twin forms of depression and anxiety are depicted. Anger and gentleness take turns, but there is often the ominous sense that violence is just around the corner.

What makes these stories "Mennonite"? Food and stern spirituality play front and centre. Rollkuchen and borscht are matched with penance and prayer. Hossack is the food columnist for papers in Kelowna and Kamloops, so references to food often include lingering descriptions.

For example, Anke is a middle-aged woman who finds that tomatoes make her "nervous" with their "shameless red and soft flesh that yields to the slightest pressure."

Later, lost in thought, she nearly whips the cream into butter, and her description of that moment is vivid: "Her favourite fork for the task lashes deftly through the thickening foam, the sound of it changing, becoming dull as the cream's volume increases in her mother's old enameled bowl, chipped by two generations of everyday use."

All of the stories feature characters who are emotionally wounded. Sometimes it's clear that the hurt is a result of loss or abuse. Other times, we have no clue why a character is so cantankerous.

In Little Lamb, an older brother wants to warn his kid brother that "mistakes never go unrewarded around here." He muses, "Henry needs to learn that Dad doesn't have any soft edges. He cherishes his anger, keeps it clenched like a closed fist around a sharp pebble until the stone has created a scar."

Lizbeth is a deeply disturbed young woman who appears in two stories, the title piece and Magpie. Her favourite brother was murdered as a teenager when Lizbeth was just 13, and she can't get over his death: "she planted her grief like a seedling in the ground and watered it with anger. At times, she even spoke to it to help it grow."

The story of Lizbeth's decline from a beautiful, happy girl to a deeply depressed adult is tragic and the images linger long after reading.

The glimpses of grace are a relief: the aunt who cooks baby potatoes with cream and dill, the son who cares for his terminally ill, abusive father, the sister who tries to protect her misunderstood sibling.

Hossack's writing may remind readers of Manitoba-born Mennonite authors Patrick Friesen and Miriam Toews. Like The Shunning and A Complicated Kindness, the stories here illuminate the sad reality that not all of Mennonite religion and culture is healthy. And no family is easy.


Adelia Neufeld Wiens

is a Winnipeg freelance writer.


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