Fact or Fiction?

toews_allmypunysorrows_coverI just read Miriam Toews’ latest book All My Puny Sorrows. Although it’s fiction, Miriam has said that some events in the novel are based on incidents in her family’s life.

Elf and Yoli, the main characters in All My Puny Sorrows, grow up in East Village. The Canadian Encyclopedia entry about Miriam Toews states that East Village, a setting she uses in several novels, is simply a thinly fictionalized Steinbach, the town where both Miriam and I grew up.  One event described in All My Puny Sorrows is the founding of the public library in East Village.

Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre- site of the first public library in Steinbach

Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre- site of the first public library in Steinbach

The story of how the first library in Steinbach finally opened its doors in 1973 is one I know well. In 1997 I wrote an account of that history for the official opening of the new Jake Epp Library. I interviewed many people who had been instrumental in the library’s establishment. Miriam’s reference to her father’s role in that event, or rather, the role played by Elf and Yoli’s father in All My Puny Sorrows, reminded me of the many people who worked so hard to make sure Steinbach would get a public library.

   Local teacher Ted Klassen and Grace Mennonite Church pastor Leonard Epp, first approached town council about a library in 1968. A businessman on council told Epp a library wasn’t necessary. “I became very successful,” he said, “without ever reading books.”

   Mary Barkman established the Friends of the Library organization in 1969 and pursed the dream of a library for Steinbach over a period of four years with dogged determination. She petitioned government ministers, provincial officials, members of the legislature, and town councilors repeatedly. At the official opening of Steinbach’s first public library the audience was told it was largely due to the efforts of Mary Barkman that the library had become a reality. She was helped by other members of the Friends of the Library including Lydia Epp, Joanne Banman, Bert Suss and Melvin Toews.

 Jake Epp, the former federal cabinet minister, after whom the current library is named, was one of Steinbach’s town councilors at the time the Friends of the Library approached the council. Defying the generally negative reaction of his fellow councilors, Epp supported the Friends of the Library, commending them for their tenacity. It was Epp who appointed the first library board consisting of Mary Barkman, Melvin Toews, Mary Rose Derksen, Dennis Giesbrecht and Jim Penner. 

   Gladys Barkman and Iris Loewen were the first librarians. They helped clean and paint the space the town council had assigned the library in the present Steinbach Cultural Arts Centre. They unpacked all the books for the library and used their engineering and carpentry skills to set up the shelves that had been shipped to the library unassembled.

   Miriam Toews’ parents Melvin and Elvira also helped to get the library going. On two separate occasions they took on the task of going door to door in Steinbach collecting petition signatures. The first time was in hopes of getting enough support to hold a referendum on a regional library. The second time was after the provincial government had passed a bill making it mandatory for towns to establish local libraries if 8% of its electorate petitioned them to do so.

   Miriam Toews describes these signature- collecting forays in All My Puny Sorrows. “For weeks my father would walk the streets of East Village with his clipboard and ballpoint pens knocking on doors and begging for support.”

Miriam’s page long account of the founding of the library in East Village is mostly fictional, but it does highlight the idea that starting a library in Steinbach wasn’t easy. It only happened because of the hard work and effort of many dedicated people.

Other posts about Steinbach…….

An Alphabet for My Home Town

The Old Kornelson School

I Was A Treble Teen



Filed under Books, Childhood, History

3 responses to “Fact or Fiction?

  1. james rempel

    you missed two decisive participants in the original committee – eric neufeld and leona rempel.


    • Dear James,
      Thanks for pointing that out. I did not come across those names in my research through minutes and letters. Eric/ Hans is a very good friend. We are having dinner together this week. I will talk to him about it to see what he remembers.


  2. Hi there again James,
    I talked to Eric/John/Hans and he assured me that while both he and your mother served for many years as board members at the Steinbach Public Library they were not directly involved with its founding. No doubt they made an important contribution but just a little later in the library’s life. Thanks for reading my blog. MaryLou


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