My fellow memoir reader Clif let me know that the review I wrote of the following book has now been published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review. It has not been posted online yet, so here it is for those of you who are Canadian, Mennonite, or just interested in good family stories.
The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia: A Mennonite Memoir. By Connie T. Braun. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008. Pp. 245. $24.95
More than any other book I have read recently, Connie T. Braun’s The Steppes are the Color of Sepia left me asking questions about the nature of memoir (note the subtitle) and its relation to two other genres it traverses—history and fiction. Braun’s book makes a major contribution to the reconstruction of repressed memory of suffering and survival among the Russian Mennonites, and, coincidentally, but less clearly so, to the burgeoning field of Mennonite memoir.
Braun tells the story of three generations of Mennonites in Russia who struggled for survival on the vast prairies of the Ukraine and Siberia: her grandparents, Jakob and Maria Letkemann; her parents, Peter and Erna Letkemann; and herself. She divides the book into three parts: an introduction called “Promised Land” and Parts I and II titled “Russia: A Pastor’s Record of Repression” and “World War II: A Boy’s Recollection of Survival.” These parts correspond roughly to reconstruction of her grandfather’s memories of Russia and her father’s memories of WWII. Interspersed throughout the book are very helpful maps and evocative photos, both of which the author uses effectively to help establish another of the book’s subjects: place. A trip with her parents and family to Russia and Ukraine in 2005 allowed her to suffuse the book with a poet’s appreciation for landscape, fecundity, and a “promised land” mythology, even as the same setting evoked her father’s memories of cruelties endured under two of the twentieth century’s harshest dictators—Hitler and Stalin.
Braun brings three extraordinary gifts to this tale. The first is passion and love of language. Her preface begins with a description of rivers where her father’s memories flow: “ along the river bank now and then are stretches of sugar-white beaches, various hollows where willow trees cast deep blue shade over fishing holes, and, further along, near the old quarry, high rocky ledges from where boys whoop as they slice, like blades of pocket-knives, through air and water” (ix). The second is a thorough comprehension of the relevant works of Russian and Canadian Mennonite history combined with literary and philosophical texts on the nature of memory itself (see her fine essay “Silence, Memory and Imagination as Story: Canadian Mennonite Life Writing” at http://www.mennonitewriting.org/journal/1/3/silence-memory-and-imagination-story/ for evidence of the scholarship that underlies her book.) The third strength lies in conscientious detective work—uncovering deeply repressed and thus scantly recorded memories. She wants the truth, she deeply respects the documents and recorded history she uses, and when she imagines, as she often does, she “shows the work,” to use Julia Kasdorf’s apt phrase.[i] We trust this author’s voice, both for the narrative she constructs and the silences that remain within it.
As a descendent of Swiss-German Mennonites, I eagerly read this story for both its similarity and difference to my own. One thing that struck me is how inadequate our labels are for various kinds of Mennonites living in Canada and the United States today. Braun says in her preface that although her progenitors lived in Russia for a century, “we are not Russian and not Ukrainian. We are descendents of a migratory people, the Mennonites. We are survivors of dictatorship and war, and are now a Canadian family” (x).
The fields of Mennonite history and literature, at their best, illustrate the power of what Braun calls “peoplehood” to transcend the boundaries of time and space. They accomplish this feat well when they are the most particular. Braun never conflates the story of her family with that of the Amish or Mennonites in Pennsylvania or Indiana, for example,[ii] but she tells it in such a way that any descendent of the Anabaptists can recognize age-old issues—separation from the world, pacifism, family, community.
The kind of suffering detailed in this book is alien to many Mennonites who, after escaping persecution in Europe, found land and freedom and have never lived under dictatorship. One of the questions history asks of us is, “Do I have the courage of my ancestors not to take up the sword, or not to recant my faith under the threat of death or imprisonment?” The complicated answers to these questions from those who lived with them under communism and national socialism in Russia and survived to tell the story are important contributions to twenty-first century Mennonite identity—not just in Canada and the U.S. but also in places where Mennonites have suffered more recently—Indonesia and Ethiopia, for example.
The book might have benefited from stronger editing. Even though the author’s lyric prose captivates many times, occasional lapses occur. Sometimes the meaning is unclear [“At times, these distinctions of tense become blurred, but essential truths are sharpened” (xiii)]. Sometimes purple prose combined with conjecture seems jarring: “Was this pregnancy a whisper of hope to Jakob and Maria in the depths of winter’s hush?” (56). An occasional cliché — “new life emerges from brokenness and ashes” —in a dramatic place—the end of the preface (xiii) —blunts the effect of a poetic description in the previous sentence.
These are small matters. But I am left with one larger regret. Ironically, it is the same regret the author has in relation to her grandfather’s telling of his tale in writing: “Unfortunately, Jakob did not reveal much of his interior life” (xi). I wanted more of the interior life of the author. We catch glimpses of her riding her bicycle in the suburbs. We can tell that she has scholarly training. But how have these stories affected her life? Her presence is strongly felt, but more in her imagination concerning the silences of others than in the impact of their stories on her. I expected more of Connie Braun’s story. Her mother Erna and grandmother Maria’s voices were effaced by circumstance. Connie’s should ring out. Readers don’t even know if she is writing from the perspective of someone who claims the name Mennonite for herself. The author description uses the phrase “of Mennonite heritage,” which suggests, but does not confirm, that her location now is not inside a Mennonite community. She has a right to this story whether or not she claims the faith as her own, but she should claim her location now. Memoir promises insight and intimacy. It stirs curiosity in the reader that cannot be satisfied by biography of ancestry alone.
Finally, we know from a few details in the story (her father’s Italian leather shoes, allusions to business success in Canada) that his life and his family’s life changed drastically after immigration. The story of a “Mennonite memoir” should not end, like an old high school text history text, with WWII, but should, at least in epilogue form, “show the work” that takes the present into the past as well as bringing the past into the present.
[i] “I love the essays that “show their work,” in the words of my eighth-grade algebra teacher, the process more interesting than a flawless scholarly product” (xii), Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Preface to the 2009 edition,” the body and the book: Writing from a Mennonite Life: Essays and Poems,UniversityPark: Penn State University Press, 2009.
[ii] Keeping the categories of different narratives and nationalities clear while also showing what all Mennonites have in common is a complicated task. Braun’s diligent treatment of this subject stands in contrast to the recent humorous memoir of Rhoda Janzen. See my review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: http://www.100memoirs.com/2009/11/mennonite-in-a-little-black-dress-an-old-mennonite-review/