Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Voices of Faith in Blue Mountains of China and a Community of Memory

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Voices of Faith in Blue Mountains of China and a Community of Memory

Article excerpt

Abstract: Both Blue Mountains of China and A Community of Memory consist of short stories that together depict the familiar master narrative of the Mennonite exodus (Russian Mennonites and Swiss Mennonites, respectively) from European homelands to new land in the Americas. A comparative focus on the role of the storyteller within each text reveals important differences between Wiebe's and Gundy's definitions of community and their understandings of the function of the individual within those communities. The initially invisible narrator of Blue Mountains of China emerges as a character near the end of the novel, but only to become one more individual voice in a deliberately chosen community of faith, hence no more authoritative than any other voice. The increasingly visible and self-conscious narrator of A Community of Memory finally states a tentative affirmation of a community that is more given than chosen.

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At first glance the task of comparing a Canadian novel about Russian Mennonites with an American creative nonfiction text about Swiss Mennonites seems rather daunting. True, both texts explore the broader Mennonite effort to find a place in which to worship and live in peace--and, incidentally, to prosper. Beyond that very general similarity, however, Rudy Wiebe's Blue Mountains of China and Jeff Gundy's A Community of Memory differ radically in their narrative methods. Nevertheless, I will attempt a limited comparison focused on the peculiar stance of the storyteller in each text. For the problems the reader encounters with that storyteller reveal much about the kind of Mennonite community the reader--Mennonite and non-Mennonite--is invited to consider. (1)

At first it is hard to find an obvious, or even implied, narrator in Blue Mountains. Chapter I gives us the voice of Frieda Friesen, comfortably and piously recalling her life for her great-grandchildren. But Chapter 2 tosses us abruptly into the tortured mind of young Jakob Friesen V as he vainly inserts childhood prayers for purity into the moral and social chaos of a Russian Mennonite village forcibly turned communist. Except for the four chapters given to Frieda Friesen, every chapter gives us another group of characters, another setting, another narrative stance. Each chapter begins in medias res and ceases while still "on the way" as is emphasized by the title of the final chapter. No omniscient narrator, no transitions help us create a meaningful whole out of these brief immersions into intensely personal, frustratingly incomplete struggles to translate faith and community into new contexts.

Not until the final Chapter 13 does someone emerge to collect all these narrative fragments into one basket. When young John Reimer first appears in the text as a crazy Mennonite walking across Canada, carrying a wooden cross, his symbolic freight is all too obvious. Rather improbably, several characters from previous chapters, mostly lapsed Mennonites, gather around Reimer in a ditch near Calgary. They turn out to be either related to one another or connected to the same Russian village of origin: the ethnic community is re-established despite their best efforts to forget Low German. In the ensuing conversations the question every main character in the book has grappled with surfaces again, this time explicitly: What does it mean to be a Mennonite in the world?

Reimer's sermon in reply to that question-which he hears as "What does it mean to be a Christian?"--echoes what Wiebe has written or said in other places. In an interview with Donald Cameron, Wiebe stated, "To be an Anabaptist is to be a radical follower of the person of Jesus Christ--that's really what it's about--and Jesus Christ had no use for the social and political structures of his day; he came to supplant them." (2) That sounds very much like John Reimer's insistence that to be a Christ-follower is to live radically, to begin "a revolution for social justice," not to set up "a church that can never change no matter where on earth or in what century it is, a church that's never as important to us as living, as eating, as making our pile. …

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