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Mennonites Don't Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack (review)

From: Canadian Ethnic Studies
Volume 45, Number 1-2, 2013
pp. 270-272 | 10.1353/ces.2013.0019

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This collection of short stories could be of interest to two entirely different groups of people—those who have Mennonite background and want to read Low German everyday idioms translated into English, and those who simple like good stories without endings.

Mennonites Don't Dance consists of eleven tales, several of them serving as commentaries on Mennonite rural life on the prairies. In my estimation, these include "Luna, Little Lamb, Mennonites Don't Dance, Magpie," and "Poor Nella Pea." Friesen does a masterful job of portraying the peasant lifestyle of replanted Russian Mennonites as is evident in the many expressions that appear to be direct translations from the Mennonite dialect commonly known as Low German. For example, "Like a chesterfield whose stuffing had shifted" (22), "Get back here, you little schweinhund (literally, 'pig-dog'), you little sausage snatcher" (26); "He's too thick between the ears" (81); "He'll learn that mistakes never go unrewarded around here" (83); "Her thighs, for example, which had thickened since she turned thirteen, certainly made her look Mennonite" (88);"If you ask me, they wouldn't like it in heaven anyway" (99); and, "What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?" (114).

Friesen does not reference the date of her essays, although a single reference to 1954 establishes a timeline for the story "Little Lamb." Some of the other stories seem to be set in a much later time period. Mennonite readers "in the know" can probably establish timelines for the other essays since Mennonitism, like other ethnicities in Canada, has tended towards assimilation over time. In "Luna," for example, Friesen indicates that young Mennonite men attended seminary (28) in order to prepare for the ministry, and this could set the story around the 1950s when that became a trend.

Friesen's persistent use of slang may cause some Mennonite readers to cringe. Perhaps this choice of verbiage is the influence of her writing mentor, Sarah Birdsell. Mennonites may think in those terms from time to time, but they are rarely verbalized. Examples include use of the word "damn" on pages 83, 85, 95, and 163, and an even lesser preferred term using the letters "sh..." on pages 20 and 83. Other terms not necessarily verbalized by Mennonites in everyday language include "Old Bastard" (17), "bugger" (30 and 43), "for God's sake" (40), and "witch's tit" (81).

Rural life in early 20th century Mennonite villages, like that of other cloistered communities, fostered gossip and reprimand as a means of promoting cultural maintenance and/or keeping individuals in check. Friesen cashes in on this practice with the following phrases: "So, what's the point of a fancy sewing machine if you think zippers are the Devil's fasteners?" (89); "All Have Separate Arms and Legs but Share the Same Brain" (90); "This is to go no farther than this house" (100); "Mennonites don't dance because it might lead to sex" (103); and "We're still Mennonite, you and me, we don't believe in ridiculous things" (150).

Several of Friesen's humorous but folksy scenes include the description of a Mennonite mother from Paraguay bragging that her son ate at least a loaf of bread a day, as though that were something of an accomplishment (91); a mother reprimanding her daughter with, "Now why don't we see whether or not you can master something you actually need to know?" (95), when the latter boasted about having witnessed a calf being born; and Friesen's description of Aunt Gutherie, a conservative spinster, "[W]ith an enormous carpetbag and hair wound so tightly into a bun that it made her face look as though it was being tightened by a screw at the back of her head" (191).

Mennonites Don't Dance has its virtues, although its small print and the ghostly cover, with its implied message of cultural imprisonment, are not among them. Basically, the book is humorous and ethnically informative with a series of literary devices such as half sentences, metaphors, and similes thrown in for enrichment. Readers should have a good time with it.

Copyright © 2013 Canadian Ethnic Studies/Études ethniques au Canada
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