I’d never heard of a break event before I read Robert Zacharias’ book Rewriting the Break Event- Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature. The idea of a ‘break event’ comes from sociologist Robin Cohen and literature professor Vijay Mishra. They suggest communities forced to leave their country of birth often create a mythology around the trauma of the event that wrenched them from their homeland. Retelling the story of their dramatic dispersal affirms their identity as a community across geographical and generational lines. Jewish immigrants have their Holocaust story, Irish immigrants their potato famine story, Africans their slavery story, and Mennonites have their story of loss and suffering during the Russian Communist Revolution. That story has played a key role in the construction of their identity.
The cover of Rewriting the Break Event features a drawing of the 800- year old Chortitza Oak, a tree that is an important symbol for Mennonites because it is where they congregated when first arriving in Ukraine from Prussia.
I visited the tree a few years ago and was struck, as was Zacharias, by the fact that it is almost dead and only standing because wires prop it up. Zacharias says that like the wires that keep that tree upright so the stories of Mennonite writers are supports that keep alive the memories of the Mennonite experience in Ukraine.
During my visit to Ukraine I was reminded how evidence of the Mennonite sojourn in that country is rapidly disappearing. This lends added importance to the literature created by writers who describe the Mennonite golden age of prosperity in Ukraine and its catastrophic end during the Communist revolution. Zacharias says for many Mennonites that literature has become like a second set of Scriptures.
In Rewriting the Break Event Zacharias looks at five popular pieces of Mennonite literature. They all describe the same historical events but do so in very different ways. Some are theological narratives while others seek to define Mennonites as a distinct ethnic group and others explore the traumatic effects of the break event – the Communist Revolution. Which story provides the most accurate view?
Zacharias’ book is for an academic audience. It is not easy to read like Hans Werner’s The Constructed Mennonite another recent book that also explores how stories define us. If you haven’t read the five novels Zacharias examines- Al Reimer’s My Harp is Turned to Mourning, Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China, Sandra Birdsell’s The Russlander, Janice Dick’s Out of the Storm or Arnold Dyck’s Lost in the Steppe it is hard to wade through the detailed analysis of these works that comprise the body of this book.
The premise of The Break Event is an intriguing one however and I read the introduction and conclusion (which comprise almost half the book) carefully and with great interest.
I have listened to the spellbinding stories of my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents who were involved in some very dramatic episodes during the break event. Zacharias’ book was a good reminder that the varying narrators of those stories, as well as the different purposes for which they told their stories, greatly influenced the nature of their account of the break event they presented. Zacharias’ book also made me think about the way I am retelling stories of my family’s involvement in the break event to a new generation. What is my purpose in trying to keep those stories alive?
In his conclusion Zacharias reminds us our perspective on the Mennonite experience in Ukraine will continue to be influenced by the new storytellers who will explore it in the future.