Review of the book All Things Decently and In Order:
And Other Writings on a Germans from Russia Heritage
By Edna Boardman
North American Heritage Press, Bismarck, North Dakota, 1997, 146 pages. Institute Room Germans from Russia F645.R85 B63 1997. (not available on interlibrary loan).
Book review by Ron Vossler. The Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, North Dakota, 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 - Religion; 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 in Mennonite in a German from Russia family in rural north central North Dakota in the 1940's and in1950'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 decidedly 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.
Another chapter section, titled "I Second Guess the Evangelists," indicates how the author found her own way through a sometimes rigid belief system, which this immigrant group must have adapted out of necessity, to keep their German identity. (During the nineteenth century, Germans from Russia established and lived in 3,000 villages, which were, as Adam Giesenger, a Winnipeg based Germans-from-Russia expert, put it: "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 scissors 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 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 alter call hymns, like "Almost Persuaded" or "Just As I Am," familiar to anyone of fundamentalist background or faith.
Throughout this book, Boardman also writes vividly of various prairie scenes common to people from the protestant Germans form 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 "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." (The past summer in Ukraine, this reviewer, listened to an elderly German woman, recently returned from decades of exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan, as she sang 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 German 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 his 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 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 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, there century of isolation on the Russian steppes, which, in effect, suspended in time, in at least some ways, parts of their culture and their language - struggled with the lengthy process of assimilation in America.
In a broader sense, this book is a worth while 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 retain what is mostly 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.