There was an almost perpetual smile on my face while I was reading Andrew Unger’s new book Once Removed from Turnstone Press. Andrew is the creator of the hugely popular news website The Daily Bonnet. His wry sense of humour which he uses to satirize all things Mennonite for his thousands of social media followers is clearly evident in his novel.
Timothy Heppner the hapless hero of Once Removed is a ghostwriter in the town of Edenfeld. I chuckled as Timothy quoted a poem from a book by one of his clients, a Mrs Esau, who specializes in odes to borsht. “Borsht how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” I laughed out loud when Timothy described the auto-corrected wording on a commemorative cairn in the nearby town of Neu-Kronsberg that turned the name of the community into Nude- Kronsberg.
The old and new meet in interesting ways in Once Removed. A traditional pig butchering bee, a ritual I remember from my own childhood, is accompanied in the present day by bottles of light beer for the adults and face painting for the children. Mrs Friesen becomes an important ally for the novel’s main character. She is passionate about preserving the past but is also very much a modern Mennonite who drinks Malbec loves the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and has made a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.
I grew up in Steinbach and raised my own children there. Although the town in Once Removed is named Edenfeld, I found the novel was consistently prompting me to make Steinbach connections. I couldn’t stop myself from trying to figure out which Steinbach church might be the Faith Barn in the novel, what famous Steinbach author the character Elsie Dyck represented, and what former mayor of Steinbach one might compare to BLT Wiens the civic leader of Edenfeld. I suspect as people from other communities read the novel they will make similar connections with their own Mennonite hometowns.
Artist Margruite Krahn has taken the tradition of Mennonite floor art and made it her own. I have been fortunate enough to see Margruite’s unique floor art when it was on exhibit at a gallery, and also in the home of one of her patrons. I loved it that Once Removed had a piece of Margruite’s floor art on its cover and that in the book a beautiful example of floor art is discovered in the Hiebert house barn after a roll kuchen frying mishap.
There are plenty of quirky characters in Once Removed. Katie is our hero Timothy’s supportive wife. She has a part-time job at a gas station but is also a university student working on a thesis about gender performativity in Mennonite households. She keeps her nails nicely filed for easy typing. Randall is Timothy’s best friend. They were in a rock band together. Randall is on a quest to find his family roots in Russia and is in love with Brenda who works at the Credit Union where you have to recite Psalm 23 to get a loan.
Although Once Removed is very entertaining and funny it also raises some important questions for readers. Is it a good idea for religion and politics to be closely aligned? What is the right balance between preserving the past and moving forward progressively to the future? What things are truly important in life? How easily do we buy into stereotypes? Once Removed even prompted me to consider more carefully the kind of role food plays in our social interactions.
So what did I like about Once Removed? It was humorous, cleverly juxtapositioned the old and new, reminded me of my hometown, had quirky characters, used interesting references to floor art, and made me think.
Once Removed is available from McNally Robinson Booksellers.
Other posts about Mennonite authors………….