Mennonite Family's Story Loses its Way: Sweeter
Than all the World
Julius, Rudy. "Mennonite Family's Story Loses its Way: Sweeter Than all the World." Winnipeg Free Press, 2 December 2001, sec. D4.
In Sweeter Than All the World, veteran Alberta novelist Rudy Wiebe examines the Mennonite experience through a fictionalized study of the Wiebe family from the 16th century to the present day.
It is one of two Mennonite-themed books by Canadian authors published this fall (along with Sandra Birdsell's The Rüsslander) and it is Wiebe's first novel since A Discovery of Strangers, which won the 1994 Governor-General's Award.
The novel's protagonist, Adam Peter Wiebe, is born in Canada in 1935. He grows up to be a successful doctor, mostly ignoring his Mennonite roots. But when his own family splinters, he begins a tireless quest to rediscover his family history.
Thematically, the book's most interesting and relevant motif is the strong connection Mennonites have with the earth, and the inherent contradiction of that bond.
Early Mennonites were experts at creating land where there was none before by building dikes and draining water from low-lying areas. Yet they were a landless people, regularly forced to emigrate because of their beliefs and never able - at least not until the present day, perhaps - to completely settle down for more than a few generations at most.
That contradiction is exemplified by the 17th-century Adam Wiebe, who was Danzig's master builder, draining the swamps around the city and building walls that protected it during the Thirty Years' War.
In spite of his engineering genius, he was not allowed to own property within the very walls he built, instead living on a farm that was repeatedly overrun and burned by armies as they tried unsuccessfully to breach his indestructible walls. Nonetheless, he retains his humility in his deadpan assessment that "a garden was worth it. A burned house can be rebuilt, but flowers cannot grow between cobblestones."
However, Rudy Wiebe is not content with this one strong theme. The book is burdened by his attempt to examine ideas as disparate as the concept of exile, multiple meanings of names, and the truth/fiction of history, among others.
Structurally, chapters alternately focus on portions of Adam's life in the 20th century and the lives of his ancestors. Unfortunately, as the novel moves into Adam's adult life, it becomes mired in indulgent self-examination.
The novel's strength lies in the balance between the historical character's stories and the modern day Mennonite man. When the modern man is lost and wandering in the wilderness, why does it have to go on for so long?
Joe Wiebe is a freelance writer of Mennonite heritage, but no relation to Rudy Wiebe.
Reprinted with the permission of Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba.