All Things Decently and in Order
and Other Writing on a Germans from Russia Heritage

By Edna Boardman

Published by North American Heritage Press, 146 pages, includes bibliographical references, 1997, softcover.

Edna Boardman writes about her book

"So often, when people write about their heritage, they skip religion in important ways. They talk about building a church or sitting through long sermons or the general cherishing of religious teaching or who was the minister or priest. In one story I read recently about a grandmother, the writer commented that grandma wasn't much for 'organized religion.' This contemporary way of viewing religion is unfortunate, as it doesn't give a true picture of what faith has meant in the lives of our people, either in Russia or in America. In my book, I have tried to tell what it was like to be the kid in the pew. I talk about what was taught to me and how I responded to it. I think many readers will enjoy sitting beside me at a revival meeting of the kind that once flourished in Russia. What we believed and how we related to each other shaped our lives in ways that had only an incidental relationship to the church as an institution--though that was undeniably important to us too. I do not ignore the fact that religion divided us from our neighbors in harsh ways. For readers not too interested in religion, I write about the farm. I tell about the problem of getting water, the summer kitchen, and the changes that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. There are three sketches of persons not long from the steppes. What were they like and how did they shape us? Surely those of the next generation, now so interested in genealogy, will want to know such things once the charts are filled out. For readers who would like more background, the book ends with brief historical sketches of the Mennonites and the Germans from Russia."

Book Review by Claire Rosser Published in KLIATT, May 1997

Boardman has contributed reviews to KLIATT for years, and I read her autobiography with great interest. Obviously, it has a limited audience, but anyone who shares her heritage, or comes from a region of the country where Mennonites have contributed to the culture, will be especially interested. Edna carefully explains the difference between the Mennonites who settled in Colonial America, mainly in Pennsylvania, and those who at the same time emigrated to Russia and eventually arrived in America 200 years later, settling largely in the high plains of the western states. She says that today six million people in North America trace their ancestry to ethnic Germans born in Russia. Edna describes the beliefs of these Mennonites in detail, using her own childhood experiences as a reference point. She also tells of the hardships these family shared. and their spirit of community and hard work. She tells of the isolation of many of these farm families, how she herself had to do her high school work through a correspondence course in the 1950s in North Dakota. Today, Edna is the librarian at Minot High School, Magic Campus, in Minot, North Dakota.

"Minot author tells of Mennonite church life", The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota, Sunday, October 19, 1997, page C6.

The Mennonite Brethren Church that stood south of Sawyer, N.D., was an extremely plain and unimposing structure. Yet according to Edna Boardman, "the plainness of the church belied the richness of the life that flourished within."

Using her childhood church as a focal point, Boardman provides a sensitive and wonderfully detailed portrait of early Mennonite church life on the North Dakota prairies. She wants readers to understand what really went on in these small country churches, a growing number of which have closed their doors in recent years. (The Mennonite Brethren Church south of Sawyer held its last service in 1993.)

Boardman vividly describes the look, feel and sound of early Mennonite churches. Males traditionally sat on the right and females took their places on the left. Church members addressed one another as "brother" and "sister." During their services, the congregation sang hymns like "I've Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop."

In books such as this one, writers often yield to the temptation of painting a nostalgic, sugar-sweet picture of early church life. It is to Boardman's credit that she provides instead a surprisingly balanced account. She wants readers to appreciate not only the simple goodness of her childhood church but also its complexity.

This book is much more than anecdotal information about little-known country church. The author includes compelling sketches about her own family. She also writes about the background of her people, German-speaking Mennonites from the Black Sea region of Ukraine. Boardman strives for balance and honesty even when writing about her own family. The portrait of her father, Karl Schieve, is especially poignant. He clung to the ways of the Old Country so stubbornly that such tenacity earned him a family reputation for harshness. When asked to walk down the aisle with his daughter at her wedding, he refused, saying, "Is she a cow that needs to be led?"

Boardman is librarian at Minot (N.D.) High School. Earlier she taught at Garrison and Rugby, N.D., schools.

Book reviewed for The Forum by Professor Timothy J. Kloberdanz, North Dakota State University, Fargo.

About the Author

When she was a child, Edna Boardman listened to her grandmothers talk about life on the Russian steppe. But not until much later did she begin to wonder why they saw themselves as German, not Russian, and why they spoke a colorful but not-very-respected German dialect. When an organization that included the words Germans from Russia formed, she was immediately interested.

Boardman is the Librarian at Minot High School, Magic Campus in Minot, North Dakota. She began her teaching career in a rural school and as a teacher of English at high schools in Garrison and Rugby, North Dakota. She did her degree and graduate work at Minot State University, The University of Montana, St. Cloud State University, and the University of North Dakota. She has written for more than ten years for Heritage Review, the publication of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society.

"I would like to think that I have not just written for the Germans from Russia, but perhaps interpreted something of us for other readers." --Edna Boardman

Book Review by Ron Vossler, Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, ND, Sunday, October 12, 1997.

Edna Boardman's first book--she is currently Minot High School librarian and formerly a teacher and wife of a clergyman--is a welcome addition to the literature of North Dakota and the northern prairie.

This is a hybrid book, composed of memoir, biographical sketch, and historical data. Three major sections--Religon; Family and Farm Life; and History--are further divided into nineteen separate chapters, most of which were previously published in Heritage Review, the quarterly journal of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck, N.D.

Some chapters deal with the author's life, growing up Mennonite in a German from Russia family in rural north central North Dakota in the 1940's and 1950's; other chapters are devoted to people influential in the author's life, such as her grandparents, and several educators.

As the subtitle indicates, this book also contains other of the author's writings about Germans from Russia. There is, for example, a rather informal chapter on the history of the Germans from Russia. Another chapter traces the history of the Mennonite Brethren, a persecuted anabaptist group, who originated in sixteenth century Switzerland, and who eventually gathered converts from among the Germans from Russia.

Readers will come away from this book with a better idea of how old world religiosity--in this case, German pietism, which influenced the writers Goethe and William Blake with its decidely Gnostic temper--shaped the daily lives and thoughts of Germans from Russia immigrants and their descendants in America.

One chapter section details Mennonite beliefs, including, among others, adult baptism, keeping the Sabbath, and the priesthood of all believers; the same section lists "Theologies We Opposed," such as modernism, evolution, and infant baptism. A later chapter section is titled "I Second Guess the Evangelists."

This part indicates how the author found her own way through a sometimes rigid belief system, which this imigrant group must have adapted out of necessity, to keep their German identity. (During the nineteenth century, Germans from Russia established and lived in 3000 villages, which were, as Adam Glesenger, a Winnipeg based Germans-from-Russia expert, put it: "little islands in the vast Russian ocean.")

Boardman also makes clear how strictly many of those beliefs were interpreted. At one point she tells us how her mother--"in a voice that permitted no disagreement"--admonished her for using a scissor on Sunday. She also tells the reader how as a young person she dealt with the various "worldly" pleasures forbidden to Mennonites, such as card playing, dancing, or theater--a situation not unfamiliar to anyone of Protestant German from Russia background, caught between the old and the new.

Another chapter, titled "A Fountain Filled With Blood," takes a close look at an old time revival service. She includes the words of various altar call hymns, like "Almost Persuaded" or "Just As I Am", familar to anyone of fundamentalist background or faith.

Throughout this book, Boardman also writes vividly of various prairie scenes common to people from Protestant Germans from Russia background: baptism "in the sun-warmed water of a nearby sandy bottom lake"; the rich imagery and symbolism of evangelists who sometimes gave dire "warnings of the end of time and doom"; and to "Ecstatic Experience" as it relates to the "old" way of singing, which, as some experts, like Peter Hilkes of the Ost Europa Institute of Munich, claim the German colonists in Russia learned from their Ukrainian neighbors.

Boardman describes how this singing, which can still be heard from Germans from Russia vocal groups in North Dakota, sometimes moved a listener "into what seemed an altered state of consciousness." (This past summer in Ukraine, near his grandfather's home village, this reviewer, after speaking with elderly German women, recently returned from decades of exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan, was privileged to hear them sing a farewell song, whose tones had that same "eerie keening" which Boardman describes in her book.)

The bulk of one chapter, which seems to be drawn from interviews with members of the Landsieute Chapter of the Germans from Russia in Minot, gives insight into how difficult it was for older members of this ethnic group in North Dakota, at least, to adapt. Most affected by changes were the older people and the women, the most isolated. As the northern plains became increasingly Americanized, these people had to give up the language of their heart, German, for religious sermons and training in English.

Some prairie congregations, as Boardman points out, found interim solutions to the problem. Young people had to learn both languages in their church confirmation classes. Then, on confirmation day--a rite of passage into adulthood--young people appeared in front of their congregations to profess the tenets of their faith. There, in what seems the ultimate multicultural experience, they were asked to give answers to questions, first in English, then in German.

Boardman's writing style, though conversational, is crafted. Besides that, she is not afraid to be direct, as the following insightful passage illustrates. It concerns a father she barely knew; and, as she indicates, his life and character were more the norm than many would care to admit:

"Karl Schieve's story is that of a very ordinary German from Russia, the kind most biographers ignore... Nobody loved or even liked him very much. He did not know how to relate to his family, I think, because he had never known any kind of affectionate family life as a child. His late years were consumed with hypochondria...We believe he had an exceptionally fine mind, but one without direction or education. He brought from Russia harsh attitudes that did not wash very well in America. He never learned to fit into the culture of his adopted country."

This is one of Boardman's strengths, which accounts for the thoughtful tone of her book: that she is able to understand the historical forces which have shaped her ancestors, her parents, and, thus, herself; for if any ethnic group has been shaped by its history in discernible ways, it is the Germans from Russia, whose descendants now comprise near forty percent of North Dakota's population.

However, at one point, despite the care with which she wrote this volume, the author does lapse into tangled syntax. Call it typographical; or perhaps just the tug of the Germanic intonations of her own background--the throw the horse over the the fence some hay joke, as illustrated by the following sentence: "They were not long in America from a village near Odessa in southern Russia."

Much can be learned from Boardman's book, not the least of which is how the advent of electricity, the auto, WWII, along with the spread of common culture and public education brought so many changes in the 1940's to her Mennonite family and friends: forces that drew the younger generation into the mainstream of American life.

This book also vividly illustrates the manner in which the Germans from Russia--with their unique cultural history, their double and triple immigrations, their century of isolation on the Russian steppes, which, in effect, "fossilized" both a culture, and a language--struggled with the lengthy process of assimilation.

In a broader sense, this book is a worthwhile read, not only for anyone with roots in North Dakota, but for anyone who wants to know what it was like for a people to make the long journey from an eighteenth century way of life, into modernity; to know what it was like, trying to keep what is most intimately their own, and also to move beyond themselves, to take part in the shared culture of America.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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Review of the book by Ron Vossler

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