I found this novel to be quite moving, and wonderful in depicting the lives and thoughts and beliefs of my ancestors. The writer is respectful of the Mennonite community and of the devotion to God that many in that community try to include in their daily lives. At the same time, the characters are very human and flawed, and the writer is candid in his depiction of some of the real problems and issues that the Mennonites struggled with, including the often exaggerated insularity, rigid communal expectations, and the piety that could be overstressed to the point of missing Christ's message regarding treatment of our fellow men, among others. He doesn't miss the complexity of martyrdom or deep sacrifice that several of his characters show, bringing out the quiet personal courage of someone acting on their convictions while also showing the apparent futility of some of these actions.
The novel opens with the kulakization and collectivization of the late 1920's and early 1930's in the USSR, where Mennonite and peasant agricultural villages of the Ukraine and other areas were deliberately dismantled by the state using the most cruel, brutal and murderous methods (see Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine for a general history of this time), including mass starvation. The author uses local and individual stories to show the effects of this policy on the Mennonites without specifically describing the larger history.
Through his patient development of characters he fleshes out the effects of Mennonite beliefs and culture in response to these terrible events in history, following people who were arrested and removed from their families or killed by the secret police, people who returned to once vibrant and well off villages only to find them being dismantled board by board or destroyed, people who left their villages, one step ahead of the authorities, to try to leave the country, some who are exiled against their will to Siberia, some who escape from Siberia to the Blue Mountains of China, and so on. Most of those who manage to survive end up in other parts of the world where the land is so poor that it is given away to newly arrived immigrants, like parts of western Canada, the semi-desert of Paraguay, and Siberia, and struggle to establish themselves in yet another place. The novel celebrates the endurance of these Mennonites, and their faith that sustains them in these often hard times. The author finishes the story with two beautiful chapters that help bring out the uniqueness of Mennonite ideals, and the radical Christian ideals that fueled the birth of the Mennonite movement, and that still lives in some of its practitioners, almost despite the rigidities of their micro-denominations and closed societies that exist side by side and in constrast to those ideals.
This novel is very thoughtful and highly recommended to someone who seeks to put a human face to the Mennonite immigration sagas. It requires some patience to acclimate to the author's literary techniques, which are more inward-directed than straightforward linear plot; as well the author provides the reader with little context for the Mennonite historical situation, beliefs and culture which the reader needs to fully appreciate the story, so a little extra reading would help to fill in these gaps: Kroeker's Introduction To The Russian��Mennonites is brief account (111 pages) that provides a good part of that context. On a final note, the Russian Mennonites spoke Mennonite Low German, or Plautdietsch. The author employs an unusual technique that brings alive the native rhythm of Mennonite speech and thought; his novel is written in English, with a few Low German words sprinkled in, but many of the interior monologues are grammatically constructed as if in Low German, giving the sensation of listening to the character's thoughts in the rhythm of their native language.
Read the full review at the Oregon Scribbler.