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Thoughts on Dora Dueck’s New Book All That Belongs


One of the ways a good book engages you is that you are able to make some kind of personal connection with one or more of the characters.  While I was reading Dora Dueck’s new book All That Belongs I was making so many connections with her protagonist Catherine that I started jotting down a list of things we had in common.  When I got to twenty I stopped, but I could have easily continued.

Catherine and I are both retired and live in apartments in downtown Winnipeg. We volunteer at Thrift Shops. We like to go for walks along the river. We feel an obligation to spend time with an ageing parent. We grew up in Mennonite homes. 

How often did I sit around a campfire with various church youth groups singing Kumbaya just like Catherine did in her teens? Catherine and I saw the Sound of Music multiple times when it first came out. We met our husbands, who both became teachers, at Mennonite colleges and began our relationships with them at the college fall retreat. We have younger sisters living in Winnipeg in homes very different from our own.  We see our sisters regularly. We savour the special feeling of buying a new notebook for journaling and writing. 

Catherine and I spend time down at the Forks in Winnipeg. In fact, I picked up a coffee and pastry at the Tall Grass Prairie bakery there and ensconced myself in one of the comfy chairs in their new second-floor sitting area to finish reading All That Belongs. Over the course of the book, Catherine explores her family’s history including tragic events that happened in Ukraine.  I just read a short story to my writers’ group on Thursday night that included some of the tragic stories I’ve discovered while exploring my family’s past in Ukraine. 

When I was reading All That Belongs the phrase ‘gentle reader’ kept coming into my head. It is a kind of old fashioned way writers like Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen address their reading audience directly.  I felt like Dora was talking directly to me in this book and she had some important things to say, but she did so in such a gentle and measured way that I felt a sense of comfort and goodness as I read.  

 All That Belongs made me think of Hans Werner’s book The Constructed Mennonite. Like Catherine in Dora’s novel, Hans explores some startling things he discovers about his family’s past that he didn’t know while growing up. 

I spent quite a bit of time studying the wonderful artwork by Agatha Fast Doerksen on the cover of All That Belongs.  I thought about how I might create a similar kind of creative collage with photos of people from my family’s past.

 I was sorry to miss Dora’s Winnipeg launch of All That Belongs because of my trip to Croatia. I would have liked to hear what she had to say about her book.  I did, however, follow her blog posts about her travels to launch her book at various locations in Canada.

All That Belongs is published by Turnstone Press and is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers.  I would definitely recommend it and I’d love to hear from blog readers about points of connection they may have discovered in the book.  

Other posts……..

Writing is the Way I Think and Remember

The Age of Hope

There Is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction

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Writing is the Way I Think And Remember

Dora Dueck ended a recent post on her delightful blog Chronicles of Aging with the statement “writing is the way I think and the way I remember.”  I could resonate with that completely!  Writing about an event, a book, a movie or a trip helps me to process it and to remember it.  During a recent clean up of his home my father found two small daily diaries that belonged to my maternal grandmother. Grandma’s journals made me suspect that the need to write about life experiences is something I may have inherited.  

Writing in a house we rented in Iceland

Someone I know who is trying to help a partner struggling with memory loss is encouraging them to keep a journal.  There is evidence that journaling not only improves memory but also helps your emotional and mental health.

I often consider whether it may be time to stop writing this blog, to end a nearly 35 year assignment as a newspaper columnist or to take a hiatus from other long standing writing gigs. But I think even if I did give up those public forms of recording and reflecting I would need to journal privately in order to keep on living in a meaningful way.  I know many people who have other ways of thinking through things and remembering them- whether it is through photos they take, sketches they do, discussions they have, songs they compose, collections of memorabilia they treasure, time spent in meditation, scrap booking or prayer.  But for me writing is the way I think and remember. 

Other posts……

A Honeymoon Adventure

Writing Dividends

Mailboxes of Distinction

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The Age of Hope

Several months ago a magazine editor asked me to write a book review. I could choose Dora Dueck’s What You Get At Home or David Bergen’s The Age of Hope.  I hadn’t read either at the time and the editor knowing about my Steinbach roots, seemed surprised I opted for Dueck’s book since Bergen’s is partially set in my hometown.

 david bergen age of hopeI didn’t choose The Age of Hope, because while David Bergen is an excellent writer, crafting unique protagonists and memorable scenes with his well-chosen prose, I tend to prefer books where I can connect with the characters and in the past, I have rarely identified with the people who populate Bergen’s novels.  His stories make me sad and often make life seem hopeless.

 I have now read both books. Dueck’s collection of short stories was a delight. I enjoyed her strong female characters and evocative writing. But in contrast to the other David Bergen books I have read The Age of Hope drew me in completely. I came to really care about Hope Plett and I simply couldn’t put her story down. I’m trying to figure out why.

Maybe it is because I knew the woman on whom the main character is based. I went to school with her children and lived in Steinbach when she did. David Bergen says in a National Post interview that the heroine in The Age of Hope is based on his mother-in-law Doris Loewen. He does make it clear his character Hope Koop who lives in a fictional place called Eden, took on a life of her own and in some ways she became quite different from his mother-in-law. However, like Doris, Hope was born in 1930 and married a man who owned a car dealership in a rural community that he eventually lost in a financial crisis, thus precipitating a move to Winnipeg.

Perhaps the book engaged me so thoroughly because there were many things in it that reminded me of Steinbach, like Hope’s home on Reimer Avenue, the Holdeman Church where her parents’ funerals were held, and the fact she did her grocery shopping at Penner Foods.  I was always looking for recognizable people, places, situations and events in the story.

Another thing that intrigued me was how Hope wanted to be an independent woman, someone with a role and interests other than that of housewife and mother. She tries to learn Russian, enter law school and read great novels, anything to give her an identity of her own.  Hope made me appreciate how fortunate I was just a generation later to have the opportunity to not only be a wife and mother but have a full-time career and pursue personal interests, as well as serve on boards and committees in Steinbach. This was something few women of Hope’s generation were free to do in the community. 

I was also pleased that in the last part of the book Hope is afforded a measure of contentment. During her life she has struggled with mental illness, experienced poverty and her children have lives that are unconventional and often hard for her to understand.  She has been prevented from having a meaningful relationship with her grandchildren. Yet in the last years of her life, she finally has some joy. She gains the courage to come to the defense of a co-worker and a cousin in an abusive relationship.  She travels to France and revels in her freedom after her kind and faithful husband dies. She even has a brief romance.  The Age Of Hope did not leave me feeling hopeless.

 what you get at home dora dueck If you haven’t read The Age of Hope or What You Get At Home I can recommend them both. They have also both been nominated for Manitoba Book Awards 

If you enjoyed this post you might also like……….

O Henry, Alfred Hitchcock and David Bergen

There is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction

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There is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction!

He got it wrong! In March I took a course called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction from Roland Penner octogenarian story-teller extraordinaire. One class was about the contributions immigrant families have made to the city.  Penner was right in asserting that immigrants and their children helped put Winnipeg on the map. Just  look at people like ………….

Manitoba Theatre Centre founder John Hirsch who was a war orphan from Hungary

Sculptor Leo Mol who came to Canada from Ukraine in 1948

Politician Stanley Knowles who immigrated to Canada from Los Angeles with his parents in the early 1900s.  Intrepid war hero William Stephenson, Winnipeg’s own James Bond, whose parents were immigrants from Iceland and Scotland. 

Comedian David Steinberg born in Winnipeg to Romanian immigrant parents. 

The purpose of the course Winnipeg Fact and Fiction was to introduce a topic about Winnipeg history and then suggest one or two companion novels that might shed an interesting perspective on that theme.  Our teacher Roland Penner got it wrong when he recommended Fredelle Maynard’s book Raisins and Almonds as his top fiction pick reflecting the Winnipeg immigrant experience.

Raisins and Almonds tells the story of a young girl growing up on the Canadian prairies as the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia. The first problem I have with Roland Penner choosing this book is that it’s not fiction, but Maynard’s memoirs. Secondly, although there are a some pages in the book devoted to life in Winnipeg the majority of the stories are set in the small Canadian prairie towns where Fredelle’s family moved in hopes of finding one where her father’s mercantile business would be successful. 

Someone in the class asked Roland if he could recommend fiction books that would represent the Mennonite immigrant experience in Winnipeg and he said there weren’t any. He claimed since Mennonites settled primarily in the rural areas of Manitoba, if there was any fiction about their immigrant experience it wouldn’t be set in Winnipeg. He was wrong. 

Dora Dueck’s novel This Hidden Thing, winner of last year’s McNally Robinison Book of the Year award, is definitely fiction and is set almost solely in Winnipeg. It tells the story of young Mennonite girls who came to live in Winnipeg to work as maids in the homes of wealthy people in order to help pay the money their families owed to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR had financed loans to make it possible for Mennonites to come to Canada from Ukraine.  Maria, the main character in Dueck’s novel, spends almost her entire life in Winnipeg after immigrating from Ukraine as a teenager.  

Penner is also wrong when he says there weren’t many Mennonite immigrants in Winnipeg. By the 1920’s six Mennonite churches had already been established in the city and by the 1950’s there were 7000 Mennonites living in Winnipeg. 

What next? I’d like to find out if there are any other novels set primarily in Winnipeg that reflect the experience of Mennonite immigrants. 

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