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?