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  • Diaspora in the Countryside: Two Mennonite Communities and Mid-Twentieth-Century Rural Disjuncture
  • John W. Friesen
Royden Loewen . Diaspora in the Countryside: Two Mennonite Communities and Mid-Twentieth-Century Rural Disjuncture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 331 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $74.00 hc; $25.70 sc.

Beginning with the 1930s, rural North Americans faced a profound cultural transformation that lasted some fifty years. Loewen traces the effects of that transformation on two geographically separated, but ethnically connected communities in Mead Country, Kansas and Hanover, Manitoba. This comparison has validity because of the similarity of rural Mennonite communities generally and the strong ethno-religious bond which all of them share —even across the Canadian-United States border.

Diaspora in the Countryside contains nine chapters which sequentially document the book's narrative. The first chapter outlines the challenges faced by rural ethnic farmers during the period referred to, and the second chapter details significant climactic changes that occurred during that time including huge snowstorms and damaging dustbowls. A rural to urban migration in search of employment was necessitated by these changes; in fact, young people of all ethnocultural backgrounds left for the city. Because of the rural to urban shift, the effect on the two specific Mennonite communities selected by Loewen resulted in the creation of a new urban Mennonite middle class (chapter 3). Once in the cities (chapter 4), the Mennonite lifestyle began to reflect a more consumer-conscious orientation. Their conservative religious beliefs and traditions were quickly influenced by a lively evangelicalism that offered a "joy in the Lord" expression of worship and personal assurance of salvation.

The fifth chapter targets a specific change in religious orientation in the Hanover Mennonite community, as a result of the urban shift. The excommunication of dissenting church members, so much a part of traditional Mennonite church practice, became more difficult to enforce in urban congregations. Some members, who grew disillusioned with their congregational functioning, simply switched churches—often joining non-Mennonite evangelical denominations. Similar changes affected urban Mennonite congregations from Meade County, Kansas, particularly in the form of a new "Cheerful Womanhood" (chapter 6). The traditional notion that the husband is the head of the house was gradually replaced by the concept of "complementarity" (125). Gender relations were affected by the disheartening, endless, numbing succession of dirt storms and drought conditions. It now became necessary to embark on a wider sphere of socio-economics because farms became increasingly mixed in economy. Many products were now being sold to non-Mennonite markets, thereby forcing increased interactions with outsiders. Mennonite men were not left out of the picture. Their non-productive farms forced many to become urbanites as they took up such professions as car dealers, storekeepers, and businessmen of sorts. [End Page 195] A few even became sports heroes (chapter 7). Emerging values included an emphasis on self-reliance, family unity, and Puritanism, rather than humility, biblicism, and pacifism. For many young men the temptation to emphasize their masculinity by joining the armed forces proved to be too strong, thereby influencing church meetings about the traditional Mennonite belief in pacifism.

In chapter 8, Loewen takes a detour to the British Honduras where many more conservative Mennonites migrated during the 1940s to escape modernity. There they engaged in debate about the role of technology by venerating the golden age of simple, pioneer life in rural North America. They tried to limit interactions with the outside world, but were not completely successful. Outside influences brought about changed clothing styles, new vocabularies, and the use of automobiles. The new migrants were soon wrestling with the ongoing challenge of establishing social boundaries, and the elders were not always successful in guiding the behavior of their young people.

Finally, Loewen takes his readers to the city—Denver, Colorado and Winnipeg, Manitoba, both popular destinations for migrating Mennonites from Kansas. Intense efforts to create "rural networks" in the city were undertaken by church leaders, but too often discussions of the new Mennonite identity resulted in painful "ideological ferment" (208). Many Mennonite youth disbanded themselves from their ethnic roots and tried to pass themselves off as only religiously Mennonite.

Loewen's dual case study is a valuable...


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