In her beautiful book Flyway Sarah Ens tells her Mennonite grandmother Anni’s story in the form of a long poem. We begin in Ukraine during the period between 1929 and 1945. Anni’s little sister dies, the churches close and Anni’s father is arrested and taken away. Famine comes.
Hunger taught us to wake slowly, to lift, as if from water.
If you did not starve, hunger taught you
to watch and wait. If you did not starve,
the stone of your stomach turned traitor.
Anni does housework and childcare for her younger siblings while attending school and then graduates just as the Germans invade Ukraine. Amid the war Anni’s brother Peter drowns.
Where is God my mother said.
I saw his body blue beneath a smooth skin of water
After a time of German occupation the Red Army approaches and
evacuees crawled the road……..
35,000 stumbling through the murk. You could hear
their hungry animals in the night, the digging of shallow pits
to hold their dead.
Anni’s family flees their home and her older brother Hans leaves them to fight with the Germans.
Hans stood shifting, crossed one leg behind the other while Mother
warbled. Please God.
Hans would not let her kiss him good-bye.
Anni, her mother and her sister then begin a trek to freedom which takes them through occupied Yugoslavia to Germany and finally to Canada.
Three women flying with what we could carry
Once the women arrive in Canada the family story is told partially through letters which are exchanged between Anni’s brother Hans who remains behind and his mother and sister. The letters in Flyway were inspired by actual family letters collected and translated by one of Sarah’s uncles.
At her book launch last night Sarah said her grandmother’s story has become a type of family myth and in her poetry she wanted to explore how that myth had shaped her. Although her grandmother’s story is clearly marked by tragedy Sarah said her legacy from her Oma Anni would best be characterized as one of joy and love.
The family story in Flyway is interspersed with scenes set in Manitoba’s tall grass prairie where the migration of the poet’s family is compared to the migration of the grassland birds
savannah sparrow; clay coloured sparrow; red-winged blackbird; brown-headed cowbird; western meadowlark; mourning dove
There are many other threads to follow in Flyway and hard questions evoked by Sarah’s meaningful and striking words. I have read the book three times now and each time have been prompted to consider some new questions.
Is religious faith more about what you shouldn’t do or what you should do? How do we respond to the reality that Indigenous people were displaced so Mennonite immigrants would have land on which to settle? What should we do about the fact that one third of migratory grassland birds are on the verge of extinction?
I am the librarian at the church Sarah attends and bought a copy of her book to place on its shelves. But now that I have read Flyway I will be buying a copy of my own as well as several for friends and family who I know will appreciate as I did, its captivating story, exquisite poetry and thought-provoking questions.