- Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature by Robert Zacharias
As the publisher’s summary concisely points out, much Canadian Mennonite literature has been characterized by a compulsive telling and retelling of the collapse of the Mennonite Commonwealth in Ukraine (then Russia) during the 1920s and the consequent migration of thousands of Mennonites to Canada; “this privileging of a seminal dispersal, or “break event’, within the broader historical narrative has come to function as a mythological beginning or origin story for the Russian Mennonite community in Canada, and serves as a means of affirming a communal identity across national and generational boundaries.” The author identifies four types of narrative exemplified by four major novels by Canadian Mennonite authors reflecting on this salient “break event.” Again, the publisher suggests that this organizational approach results in “an exciting new methodology through which to examine not only the shifting contours of Mennonite collective identity but also the discourse of migrant and minoritized writing in Canada.”
In the lengthy introduction the author initially returns to the persistent discussion of the meaning of Mennonite identity, recognizing the broadening of the term Mennonite while distinguishing between Kanadier (earlier arrivals since the 1870s) and Russlander (those who emigrated from the “Russian” colonies decades later during the 1920s) among the Russian Mennonites in Canada. In Part One Robert Zacharias not only makes extensive use of Robin Cohen’s Global Diasporas (1997) and Benedict [End Page 520] Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991) but also utilizes academic literary analyses; such in-depth analysis may be interesting enough to literary scholars but is rather challenging for other readers to follow. Part Two is less analytical, providing an overview of the prolific Canadian Mennonite literature.
The first chapter portrays Russlander as making up a fairly affluent, prosperous, and even secular society in contrast with a generally far poorer Russian and Ukrainian context. More than 20,000 Mennonites fled during the 1920s—yet most remained; and how many had already left earlier, since the 1870s? This chapter consists largely of a detailed discussion of Canadian Mennonite literature preoccupied with the break event since Rudy Wiebe’s 1962 novel Peace Shall Destroy Many. The chapter concludes with an analysis of “the use of narrative in the construction of collective memory.”
The second chapter emphasizes religious interpretation of the break event, primarily based on Al Reimer’s My Harp Is Turned to Mourning (1985). Zacharias suggests that “religious literature has remained nearly absent from the larger purview of Canadian criticism.” He then delves into the traditional Anabaptist concept of Gelassenheit (resignation) and returns to the theme of violence and repetition, concluding that despite a Biblical paradigm used by Reimer, Arnold Dick, and others writing about the break event, this event so important to Mennonite history was actually far less significant within the broader context of Russian history.
The third chapter describes the “ethnic narrative,” represented in Dick’s Lost in the Steppe (1974). In an ethnic sense, Mennonites have been viewed as a distinct Germanic people, a Volklein, and on this basis the dream of establishing a unique Mennonite state in Ukraine (Russia), a Mennostaat, became prevalent. The author notes the remarkable detail provided by Dick on aspects of traditional Mennonite culture, and the lack of religious interpretations of Mennonite identity, in favour of an ethnic emphasis, leading to the “mythic form” that this ethnic narrative has taken.
Throughout this chapter and especially in the next one, Zacharias describes problematic relations between Mennonites and their Russian and Ukrainian neighbours. Sandra Birdsell’s The Russlander (2001) exemplifies what Zacharias calls a “trauma narrative.” He defines the meaning of trauma and its relation to cultural identity in the Mennonite case. In The Russlander “the communal function of the violence of the Russian Mennonite experience is confronted with a portrait of individualized trauma.”
The fifth chapter focuses on Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China (1970) as an example of what Zacharias calls the “meta-narrative.” He concludes that this [End Page 521]
meta-narrative moves toward a...