Some people say you can’t get enough farmer sausage. I say you can.
The trouble with Mennonite literature is that it starts out sequestered for a small audience. Very few east of southwestern Ontario or west of Saskatchewan are even aware of who Mennonites are and confuse them with Hutterites, if they care at all. This means Mennonite writers have to be twice as good if they want to be known nationally— or stay away from their culture completely in writing, which is nigh impossible to do.
In Dueck’s second novel, poor young Mennonite immigrant Maria Klassen becomes a housemaid at a well-to-do home in the south side of Winnipeg. (Here we go. Tess D’Urberville or Jane Eyre?) Of course, her family relies on her income, and she sends every penny home (a crumbling shack outside of Winkler)— but for a little to have a picture taken of herself (that devil vanity!). You must be made aware that Maria is virtue on the half-shell. At nineteen, no one has a stronger work ethic than she, nor a better head on her shoulders. No flights of fancy for this girl. I began to realize the problem: This is written by a Mennonite but it’s not funny and it’s too damned long and nothing’s happening.
You see, most Mennonites ARE funny. My best friend is an example; I have never met an unamusing Menno. However, through Maria, Dueck has painted them exactly as they like to see themselves: pious, practical, frugal, hardworking and rags-to-riches. Flawless.
They poked fun at the foibles of the Poles, Hungarians, Jews or Germans, as if they as Mennonites were superior, but with an air of affection that lowered the barriers, it seemed to Maria, instead of keeping them up.
Yes, and we all know how well that worked out. The first half of the book takes us through Maria’s five years as a maid for the Lowry family, while we wait for something awful to happen. Mr Lowry comments on her good looks, and so we think wolf until handsome young James Edward comes home from university. No spoilers as to the “Hidden Thing”— but in one incident seven-year-old Bobby Lowry almost drowns (does Maria save him? Hint: she’s perfect!); in another, her brother Wilhelm defies the entire culture and enlists in the Great War (does he return? If so, is he accepted back?).
Part One covers five years. Part Two covers five decades, which one hopes would speed things up a bit. The Klassens have become rich and taken Winnipeg! All of them have thriving businesses and Maria is the matriarch of the family. Sometimes she meets aged Mrs. Lowry for tea, although the Klassens now have three cottages at Victoria Beach while the Lowrys only have one.
She began to buy her clothes off the rack… she travelled… she hosted large family gatherings at Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, insisting on full family attendance. She kept track of birthdays and anniversaries and bought gifts to celebrate. Man landed on the moon and Canada commemorated its centennial… Many other people of Maria’s age, even her siblings, complained about the younger generation… civil rights, hippies… but Maria honed a reputation for acceptance of, for confidence in, youth. She was clearly getting older but she’d made herself essential again.
What? She’d been essential since she supported the family as skivvy and took over mothering her siblings when their mother died and she graciously put up her nieces and nephews when they attended university in Winnipeg. She had never been non-essential, nor had she even worried about it before. Winnipeg could have run itself on her halo.
She was occasionally reminded of the Hidden Thing, particularly after meeting an octogenarian Mrs. Lowry at Eaton’s cafeteria for lunch. Weeks later,
Maria was bending to remove a roast chicken from the oven one evening, for the meal she was about to enjoy with her niece Marilyn and fiancé Alan who whispered and giggled in the living room while she did the last things in the kitchen. The chicken skin was crisp, the meat of it tender. She was bending and she realized whom she had to protect.
Damn, and here I was hoping for her to put her back out— anything, anything! Sure enough, the next chapter begins:
But the truth that confronted Maria as she opened the oven to her perfect roast chicken must have damaged her resolve more than she realized.
Of course it has. This epiphany is very strange, although the Hidden Thing is about the size of a chicken.
In any case, I recommend This Hidden Thing for the bedside tables of uber-religious Mennonite older ladies, who may become somewhat more forgiving as they whisper the prayer Maria does at night: “Lieber Heiland/mach mich fromm,/Dass ich in den/Himmel komm.”
Or: “Loving Saviour/make me good/so that I may/enter heaven.”
Alternatively: sing, you sinners!
CMU Press | 350 pages | $19.50 | paper | ISBN #978-0920718865