In­cred­i­ble light­ness of be­ing Men­non­ite

Winnipeg novel boasts up­beat tone de­spite some heavy literary themes

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Kathryne Card­well

SARAH Klassen’s de­but novel is a sim­ple but mov­ing story about a Winnipeg Men­non­ite fam­ily’s at­tempt to con­nect their past to their fu­ture. Klassen, her­self a Winnipeg Men­non­ite, has pub­lished two col­lec­tions of short sto­ries but is best known for her poetry, the most re­cent col­lec­tion of which was 2012’s Mon­strance. In The Wit­ten­bergs, she uses grace­ful prose and a fluid story struc­ture to ex­plore themes of guilt, atone­ment, re­spon­si­bil­ity, be­long­ing and, above all, find­ing mean­ing in a Men­non­ite her­itage. De­spite the heavy themes, the novel’s tone re­mains en­cour­ag­ing rather than de­press­ing. The story, told in the third per­son and present tense, takes place pri­mar­ily in early-1990s Winnipeg, when Ea­ton’s was still open, the orig­i­nal Jets were still play­ing and the threat of war in Iraq was loom­ing. Parts of the story also take place in pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia, re­count­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of the Wit­ten­berg an­ces­tors as their way of life turns from peace­ful pros­per­ity to war, poverty and famine in the Soviet era. The Wit­ten­bergs, a mid­dle-class Men­non­ite fam­ily liv­ing in North Kil­do­nan, seem all right on the sur­face, but in re­al­ity, they aren’t do­ing so well. Dad Joseph, a high school vice-prin­ci­pal at the fic­tional Ge­orge Sut­ton Col­le­giate, is gun­ning for a pro­mo­tion to prin­ci­pal, but he driven off course by his at­trac­tion to his co-worker, who also hap­pens to be his daugh­ter’s English teacher. Stay-at-home-mom Mil­li­cent, a non-Men­non­ite, felt she didn’t be­long any­where even be­fore mar­ry­ing into a fam­ily that hasn’t quite ac­cepted her. Now she has sunken into an al­co­holic de­pres­sion. Mean­while, old­est daugh­ter Alice has just given birth to her sec­ond child. Both are af­flicted with a hered­i­tary ge­netic dis­or­der and no one, least of all her hus­band, seems able to cope with it or of­fer her the help she wants. Younger daugh­ter Mia is car­ry­ing the wor­ries of the whole fam­ily on her shoul­ders, while try­ing to catch the eye of a hand­some yet in­dif­fer­ent class­mate and try­ing to help her long­time friend Danny, whose trou­bles are worse than their other friends know. Mia’s only so­lace comes from her vis­its to “GranMarie,” Joseph’s fa­ther and the fam­ily ma­tri­arch, where she pleads for GranMarie to share sto­ries of the fam­ily’s an­ces­tors in Rus­sia. “GranMarie gave us a lovely in­her­i­tance,” Mia says to her fam­ily. “She brought her mem­o­ries with her to Canada and gave us our sto­ries.” Mia de­cides to record her grand­mother’s sto­ries, fac­ing lack of in­ter­est from the rest of her fam­ily and her grand­mother’s own mem­ory loss and re­luc­tance to re­visit painful ex­pe­ri­ences. But as Mia delves deeper into her fam­ily his­tory and learns about her her­itage, she be­gins to find the strength to face her own prob­lems. If Mia can in­ter­est the fam­ily in their her­itage, maybe they can find a sense of to­geth­er­ness and get a chance to heal and grow close again. The Wit­ten­bergs nat­u­rally begs com­par­i­son to Klassen’s con­tem­po­raries Miriam Toews and David Ber­gen, who also fre­quently use their Men­non­ite her­itage in their nov­els.

But un­like Toews’ scathing con­dem­na­tion in A Com­pli­cated Kind­ness or Ber­gen’s milder crit­i­cism in The Age of Hope, The Wit­ten­bergs cel­e­brates both Men­non­ite her­itage and re­li­gion. It is to Klassen’s credit that her novel man­ages this with­out feel­ing like pro­pa­ganda. Kathryne Card­well is a non-Men­non­ite Winnipeg writer.


The Wit­ten­bergs By Sarah Klassen Turn­stone Press, 406 pages, $24

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