‘This Hidden Thing’ by Dora Dueck

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bricknell

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.

Herself.

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

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2 Comments

  1. Christine Giesbrecht
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Elizabeth Bricknell’s review is problematic because it begins with a false dichotomy. She assumes that only two alternatives exist when there is a wider range of options. Elizabeth believes that either people have heard of Mennonites and therefore may want to read about them or (in most cases) they haven’t and therefore won’t be interested in reading about them. To what extent do people choose their books based on whether or not they have heard of the culture represented? I have never discounted a book because I have not heard of the culture. The opposite is more likely.
    Secondly, many Mennonites (particularly of that generation) really were that pious, practical, frugal and hard-working. Believe me. I’ve been raised by them and battle the tendency towards perfectionism constantly, as do many others from all cultures. I believe the theme of perfectionism, pleasing others and doing what is expected of us (perhaps writing a scathing review to conform to TWR’s mandate to be opinionated and occasionally cranky?) is a relevant, exciting and complex issue.
    As a non-Mennonite, perhaps Elizabeth Bricknell cannot be faulted for failing to understand that this is a radical book. Rebellion and subversion in their various forms and from different starting points are powerful themes. The definitions and implications of rebellion and assimilation are unique to each person. Surely, we don’t all define “good” and “bad” in exactly the same way, unless perhaps as given us by popular culture? If so, what better than a book that examines that tendency?
    Perhaps the failings of Maria are subtle to the uninitiated, but they are real to those of us who have lived in this culture and to those who are open to imagining a reality outside their own. Is not the ultimate beauty of literature gaining access to another’s point of view? I feel sad that Elizabeth missed gaining this particular Mennonite perspective in all of its complexity.
    Furthermore, Maria isn’t perfect. She taunts Gladys, cuts the playing card, supports the removal of Anni, discourages the remarriage of her father for selfish reasons and the list goes on. Maria is also described as jealous, sad, uneasy, and aloof.
    Mennonites know that it is somewhat radical for Dora Dueck to write a book that deals with “this hidden thing” and avoid a preachy tone. But even more radical is her ability to write a book that does not mock Mennonites, yet also does not center around a message of salvation. When Dueck writes that Maria read devotional books written “perhaps by one of the popular Christian writers recommend to her. Often she found herself inspired at first, only to feel uneasy with its ideals long before she reached the last page, as if she’d eaten too much dessert.” This passage alone could have the potential to alienate those “religious, Mennonite, older ladies” for whom Elizabeth recommends this book. A book with the potential to alienate those for whom the unitiated claims it will appeal to is fascinating to me.
    The rags to riches story of the Mennonite immigrants is not worth mocking since this is the story of many immigrants from all ethnicities arriving in Canada. Using scathing tones to describe: “Of course, her family relies on her income, and she sends every penny home (a crumbling shack outside of Winkler)” leaves one wondering at Elizabeth’s apparent lack of respect, awe or imagination for Canada’s history. I have pictures of those crumbling shacks in which my granparents grew up so I know they were a reality.
    Would publishing a favourable review about a not funny, slow, and sensitive book be as radical and rebellious as Maria letting the children speak English when Father wasn’t near? One’s radical rebellion is another’s Tuesday night.

  2. Bubbles
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    This review is racist! Everyone knows Mennonites are good, God-fearing people. Is the reviewer suggesting goodness and God-fearingness are boring? Shame!

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Contributor

Elizabeth Bricknell


Elizabeth Bricknell is a Winnipegger living in Toronto who has written for Variety, Now Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and various community rags. She is a sporadic court reporter working on her first novel, raising her eight-year-old son, and writing letters to editors.