I Am Hutterite: A Lovely Memoir from the Canadian Prairie

I probably wouldn’t have found this book if it hadn’t been on sale at the Green Valley Book Fair, a huge book warehouse located close to Harrisonburg, VA. The hardcover price is 19.99, but at the Book Fair it was $5.00. Ach yommer, a bargain!

I’m sure the author, who grew up Hutterite, would approve of my frugality–or at least understand it. Saving rather than spending is a way of life among many of the small religious communities whose roots go back to Austria, Switzerland, Southern Germany, and Moravia in the 16th century.

Since my own memoir-in-progress tells the story of growing up in the 1950’s and ’60’s as a Mennonite in Lancaster County, PA, I have created a sub category just for Anabaptist memoir. This category includes Amish, Mennonite, and now Hutterite, memoir. If you are interested in what it’s like to live under a polka dot scarf on the Canadian prairie, you are not likely to find a better memoir than I Am Hutterite or a better guide than Mary-Ann Kirkby.

Before telling you more about the memoir, I recommend that you listen to this Hutterite Choir singing “Jesus Remember Me” in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. My guess is that if Mary Ann Kirkby listened to this video, she became misty-eyed. I did myself. Four-part a capella singing opens all the chambers of the heart, and if you grew up listening to this music, it opens them even wider.

The garb of the musicians matches the garb the author wears on the front cover of her memoir. Only now instead of dressing in this old-fashioned way every day, she has to borrow a Hutterite outfit from a friend. As you read, you may feel as though you are donning a Pfaht (white shirt), Mieder (vest), Kittle (skirt), and Fittig (pleated apron). The author brings you into her childhood world deftly, while fully aware that most readers will be outsiders. She describes a normal morning in a Hutterite colony, with men and women streaming toward the community kitchen for breakfast. She contrasts how her mother Mary might have viewed the scene–as familiar as the sunrise. Then she thinks about how the scene would look to an outsider to whom “the setting and period costumes, adopted from sixteenth-century peasants, would have seemed staged, as if the players were on a film set where a centuries-old story was about to unfold”(2-3). This passage requires a double act of imagination on the author’s part–how would her mother have viewed the scene and how would the rest of the world view it? Nowhere is the author herself present, which is one of her secrets of tone. She clearly has the capacity to do what Willa Cather called getting inside the skin of another person, one of the great privileges of the writer. Only the very best do this well.

The writing throughout the book shimmers with memories both spiritual and temporal. Ronald and Mary Dornn, the author’s parents, due to power struggles with the author’s uncle, left the Hutterites when Kirkby herself was only ten years old. But no bitterness corrodes the text. And what does pulsate from beginning to end is love of place, community practices, and individual people. Rich in sensory detail, the book envelopes the reader; descriptions of food will make you hungry, of long church services will make your back ache, and of storytelling will make you want to join the circle.

I hope the author decides to tell the story of how she became an award-winning storyteller on Canadian television, because it seems impossible that someone with her background found a way into television, a communication medium forbidden to Hutterites.

This book was self-published before Thomas Nelson picked it up. It has sold very well, and its literary merits have been extolled. As I turn to writing my own memoir this year, I will have a model worthy of emulation.

Have you ever met a Hutterite, visited a Hutterite community? This is the longest-lived communal group in the western world. Appropriately, the memoir begins with this biblical quotation from Acts 2: 44-45: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Marx, Engels, and Mao had a secular version of this vision which today is in great disarray. Yet Hutterite communities continue to prosper. Thoughts?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Anabaptist Memoir, Spiritual Memoir and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to I Am Hutterite: A Lovely Memoir from the Canadian Prairie

  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I’ve never met anyone Hutterite, and I’ve not read any books by any. I have always been curious about them, considering they are the third leg of Anabaptists, yet so foreign to me. I think most Amish and Mennonites know of one another, but I don’t know how many of them know about Hutterites. I had never heard of them until after I left the Amish community.

    I have this book in my shopping basket on Amazon, along with another entitled, “My Hutterite Life.” Nice that you brought it to my attention.

    I LOVE the Green Valley Book Fair, by the way. Haven’t been there in ages.

    Blessings,
    Saloma

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi, Saloma. Glad this review came at a good time for you. I think you will enjoy the book very much and hope you will come back and tell the readers here what you think. My review of your book can be found at the new “page” located on the bar at the top of my blog here: http://100memoirs.com/anabaptist-memoir/

      Time for me to go check out what you’ve been up to on your blog!

  2. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler says:

    Shirley, I can’t wait to read this book. Thank you. The line of your review about the pulsations of place, community practice and love of individuals remarkably sums up my Anabaptist childhood formation. The difficulty now is to make explicit a formation that in my youth was mostly done through absorption.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Ah yes, Dolores. I was reading Thomas Merton’s journals this morning where he talks about the Hindu ability to experience the oneness of creation even though their theology of that experience may be pretty thin. That struck me as very much like Mennonites. Practices, place, people, and a sincere desire to follow Jesus. That is the best of the tradition. One reason to read and write memoir is to help make the implicit, if not explicit, at least alive for the reader.

  3. marla miller says:

    shirley,
    I’d like to put this vid-so moving-and a brief bio of this author including her book title and url -if she has one-on Me Quiet? You’re Kidding, Right? I assume she’s old enough to be a contributor and i love this song & bet Me Quiet? visitors will too. your critique of her book is so good-I hope she reads it!
    Thanks
    Marla

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Marla. You’re very welcome to put up the video up and this brief bio from the author’s website: http://www.polkadotpress.ca/about.htm By my best calculation, she was born in 1959. She qualifies for your women over 45 speak project which readers can find here:http://womenover45speak.com/

    You remind me that I wanted to offer this review to her. Thanks.

    Oh, and I’d love it if you link back to this post so that your readers/viewers can learn more if they are interested.

    Thanks! Glad to know you loved the music. Did you hear the children in the background? The families are huge and there is almost no age segregation among the Hutterites.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Mary-Ann responds to queries sent to her on that website. She has agreed to do a Q and A interview on 100memoirs and is interested in help in getting the story of this excellent memoir to the US market. It has done very well in Canada.

  5. Johanna says:

    My father, who died in 2002, worked installing refrigeration coolers in the fifties for many of the colonies Mary-Ann Kirdy mentions, and he numbered them among his friends. I remember him coming home laden with chickens and eggs and immense loaves of bread. I, meanwhile, saw complete Hutterite families weekly milling about the uptown park, clad in their bulky garments, but was too shy as a child to talk to them. So It was with great interest and a sense of familiarity I read Mary Anne’s book, appreciating the Hutterites for their sense of integrity, their industriousness and the convictions that led them to lead this life, and contrasting them to the eight years I spent as a nun, a way of life that grew out of the same quotation from Acts 2:44-45. Where Mary-Ann was born into the colony, I chose by myself as a young adult to become a nun and “leave the world” to grow into a more personal relationship with Christ, but both lives are fuelled by a beautiful idealism which lifts our (all too) human hearts to dwell in eagle’s nests–a witness all too rare today in a world soaked in self-absortion and violence. It is a lovely book!
    Johanna, author of ‘Graffiti On My Soul’ ( an account of my own life in a religious community and a powerful memoir of hope and forgiveness)

    +6+

    • shirleyhs says:

      Johanna, thank you so much for these glimpses you gained of Hutterite life. The author seems to have people like you in mind. You have had enough contact with the group to be curious but not enough to have your questions about the nature of their communal life answered. And the parallels you draw to your own story are fascinating. I hope readers will go to your website by clicking on your name.

  6. Dawn Ruth Nelson says:

    Loved the book, too. I read it earlier this year. I also did not pay much for it – in fact my daughter who works for a book distributor got it on the free shelf at work and brought it home. Even better than $5!

  7. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for the chuckle, Dawn, but looking for book bargains is probably not going to help us sell our own books. Maybe we should make an exception to frugality when it comes to books. 🙂
    I suppose it could be said that every great book is a bargain, whether at full price or a discount.

    BTW, has my review of your book been published in MQR yet? Once it goes online, I’d like to add to the Anabaptist memoir review collection.

  8. marla miller says:

    shirley-I’ll post your url on ME Quiet? site-R side-and in http://www.MarlaMiller.com ‘links’–thanks for the reminder….’girls’ doing biz—there’s millions of us out here-over 45 ‘girls’…:) doing amazingly cool stuff—-

  9. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Marla!

    Readers, here is Marla’s blog. She’s got a great concept–women over 45 speaking up! Check it out. http://womenover45speak.com/2011/07/i-am-hutterite-a-lovely-memoir-from-the-canadian-prairie/
    And, if you are a writer, be sure to follow Marla’s Marketing the Muse Newsletter. Great tips found here: http://www.marlamiller.com/

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