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Under the Standing Sun.

Review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Dueck, Dora. Under the Standing Sun. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Kindred Press, 1989.


Anna Sawatzky, at 16, finds herself on the Chaco in 1930s Paraguay.  In this work of fiction—a very palatable way of telling readers about the experiences of Mennonites who settled that  in hospitable land—Dora Dueck tells the story of a group who moved from Orenburg, a Mennonite village in the Ukraine when communism was just forcing its changes.  “We fled in secret, in great haste and agitation, scarcely able to grasp what we were doing.  I looked back at the turn, but our farmyard was lost behind swirling snow.”  They had gone to Moscow, as did many Mennonites during this period, hoping to gain permission to emigrate.  The characters of the story were a remnant rescued from deportation via cattle cars to unknown parts in the east and north of Russia.  Through some miracle, because few were permitted to leave, they found themselves on a ship, sent to Riga, Latvia, and then to South America.  From Buenos Aires, they continued aboard a river steamer to Paraguay.  They took a train, then went overland for five days by ox-drawn wagon, the standard land transportation at the time, run by a Mennonite group called kanadier.  Chaco was a solid, continuous land mass.  Dueck, through her characters, tells of a dense, green view with a flat sameness.  Bittergrass, cactus and shrubbery covered the ground.  As far as the eye could see, there were “spiked bushes and scubby trees.”  52 Anna saw nothing but a “band of bush around us at the far edges of the campo, and the immense sky above.”  Years before, explorer Fred Engen believed he had found, in the Chaco, “Grassslands that could be used for crop,” but no group that had tried, to date, had been able to cultivate this land of wind and blowing sand.

Anna’s group was joining other Mennonites, some from Canada, who had settled earlier in that area.  They had come here to preserve their faith and culture as much as their lives.  To their great pain, five brothers in the family did not come with Anna, her sister Maria, and their parents.  Some of the much-beloved sons were already dead: others had established lives in distant places in Russia.

As had happened many years before when their ancestors had moved from Germany into Russia, the new group faced a “home” that was a bare plot of ground.  Here the Sawatzkys would live for four month in a tent.  The house they built of foot-stomped adobe—clay mixed with water and grasses—was 101 – 2 – gray brick coated with more clay, grass, and manure.  P56 The packed-earth floor and walls were smeared with cow dung and mud for a hard finish.  To Anna, it seemed palatial when later the exterior was whitewashed with quebracho ashes and flour.  Because there was little rain and extremes in temperature 60 (including a hot wind called the Nordsturm), they had to learn to farm all over again on the Chaco.  Instead of the wheat, which did not grow well, they learned to grow cotton, peanuts for oil, beans, maniac, and kafir corn they mixed with purchased flour to make coarse bread.  After awhile, each family planted a small kitchen garden that produced familiar root vegetables and watermelons along with mango and grapefruit trees.  Their diet in the early years consisted largely of beans, rice, bread, and tea.  The wells they dug for water easily collapsed on the diggers and only occasionally did they get good water.  Their only human neighbors were Indians, with whom they lived uneasily.

It was easy to become disoriented on the Chaco and difficult to find anyone who had become lost.  The newcomers experienced many deaths from a typhoid epidemic and knew dysentery, injuries and deaths from accidents.  Could one death possibly have been a murder?  The native plants and animals were unfamiliar: ostriches, lizards.  They were plagued with flies, mosquitoes, worms and bugs that stank and bugs that burned their skin, and ants of various hue.  A plague of grasshoppers hit just as they saw a glimmer of prosperity, a major source of tensions. 

They brought what they could of the life in Russia to their new home.  Village names from the steppe reappeared on the Chaco: Gnadenheim, Friedensfeld, Rosenort, Schoenbrunn….. They formed a government and administered the villages as they had in Russia, and community work system created wide streets, roads, and village schools.  As was true among the German-Russian of every continent, sausage and egg noodles appeared on their tables.  They used the Russian word monschki to describe the tiny hovering insects.  The book is filled with a kind of flashback in which members of the community recall life as they had known it in Russia, the famine in the early 1920s, the Makhno marauders.  The communists had called them kulaks—tight-fisted ones.  They also recalled prosperity and a love of the land.  Anna found her elders to be flawed in wisdom, love, and endurance even while they saw God’s hand in their coming to the Chaco.  Prediger (preacher) Rahn holds the community together with spiritual and sometimes common-sense ministry.  This was not their first place of pioneering.  Mennonites had opened farming communities in the Ukraine, the Krem, Turkestan, Siberia, and many other places.  This group was supported in part by a Mennonite refugee organization, and only this made it possible at all.

Anna marries Jacob Rempel, a young man who arrived in the Chaco by crossing the Amur River from Russia into China, and coming thence to join other Mennonites in South America.  He tells an unsettling story of having crossed the river with Anna’s brother David, who, in his quest to join his family, drowned and could not be found. 

Anna and the other experienced pregnancy in a primitive setting.  They knew birth without pain medications, helped only by mothers and midwives.  They experienced a hunger for children yet also stillbirths and too-frequent—verbally hailed as fortunate even as it took its toll on the women’s health and energy.  P135”My neighbor, Leni Walde seemed perpetually pregnant.  She had six children under the age of ten, and still the children burst from her womb.”

Slowly, the group adjusted to life in the new setting.  The hot, dry climate obliged them to adopt the noontide siesta—a traditional and very practical period of rest during the hottest part of the day—and the concept of Manana (let it go until tomorrow), which had been alien to them in the Ukraine.  A special day of remembrance entered their culture.  Anna bounced between doubt and faith, but she was buoyed by her faith and the messages of the scriptures and the songs of her church.

177-178 They marked November 25 with special services.  “It was the day when we annually commemorated our release from Russia.”  As the biblical Israelites recalled the flight from Egypt by celebrating the Passover, they would recall what had happened lest children grew up not knowing from whence they had come.

They were in Paraguay, but did not become Paraguayans, just as they had not become Russian in Russia.  They wanted to retain their culture, their religion, and their language.  The Mennonites with whom they had the most contact lived in Canada.  When it became clear that life was never going to be truly progressive in Paraguay, as many as 1/3 moved, a few at a time, to other parts of Paraguay, and elsewhere in South America, and to Canada.

Author Dueck handles a sensitive issue in the context of the story.  There arose, among the Paraguayan Mennonites, a “German People’s Movement,” also called the Bund.  During the years of World War II, Germany invited them to register for German citizenship in anticipation of a return to the Ukraine when Germany won the war.  198-199 It caught them between the Germany of their distant cultural roots and the Russia of their home of many generations; between the twin evils of Russian communism and Nazi fascism.  The people were sharply divided about this, and the issue sometimes created enduring enmity within families.  Mennonites in another part of Paraguay violated the longstanding principles of their faith, that of pacifism, and sent young men to enlist in the German army.  The differences once came to violence requiring outside intervention—a major embarrassment to the community.  Finally, a group decision was made to eliminate pro-German Movement leaders from the village.  Germany’s loss of the war dashed hopes that they would ever be able to return to the Ukraine, as some had continued to hope, or even that they would ever be able to leave the Chaco.

The Mennonites from Russia and Canada learned to farm the Chaco and their economic situation inproved.  Small improvements loomed large—the addition of a small, separate kitchen; flowers beside the door.

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