Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Putting Herself Forward: Naming and Performance in Sandra Birdsell's the Russlander

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Putting Herself Forward: Naming and Performance in Sandra Birdsell's the Russlander

Article excerpt

Abstract: Sandra Birdsell's The Russlander portrays the Mennonite world in Russia at the end of the imperial era when Mennonites--as actors and spectators enjoying their own society--liked to display the effects of their material ambitions and inheritances. Personal names--suggesting aspirations, enacting control--became part of their "performance." Birdsell's protagonist, young Katherine (Katya) Vogt, indulging in childlike pleasures but growing self-conscious upon experiencing the impact of social class, discovers that her gentle inscriptions of her name mark her identity in terms of a debilitating class structure that understands itself in commodity terms. Birdsell, in one strand of her rich novel, also carries her investigation of naming and performance into Mennonites' changed social conditions in post-war Russia and, finally, Canada.

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"the movement of his hand across paper was not an embellishment but the rehearsal of his name"

--Patrick Friesen (1)

In The Russlander (2001), Sandra Birdsell's beautiful and haunting new novel about Mennonites in Russia during the period 1910-23, (2) the opening lines of Chapter 1 invite readers to enter the subjective realm of the protagonist Katherine Vogt, or Katya, and observe the enchantment and power that she recalls having felt when, as a young child, she first wrote her own name. Simultaneously, Birdsell invites us to understand Katya's experience in terms that exceed Katya's conscious intention, and that focus on Katya's activity as though it might well be regarded as a "performance" of her very identity. Thus, the first sentence of Chapter I introduces a lyrical meditation on the deeply configured interweaving that occurs between personal identity and the "performance" of one's name: "She [Katya] would always remember the awe, the swelling in her breastbone when she'd first seen her name written, Lydia guiding her hand across a slate" (5). Exquisitely, deliciously, name--rendered visible here--gives confident shape to personal identity and in turn takes on the shape of that identity. In Katya's case, her parents bestowed on her a culturally fluid name. They were signalling to their Mennonite community something of their fantasy of their daughter's future role in that community's ongoing performance. When Katya was born in the early 1900s, the name's overtones looked boldly to the imperial center, particularly recalling Catherine the Great of Russia, the empress who in the 1780s invited the Mennonites into Russia in the first place. And they looked also, through "Katya," to contemporary styles revealing a Mennonite inclination for fashionable flirting with neighboring Russian identities. (3)

Katya's innocent preoccupation with her name, along with what are for her its gently intoxifying effects, continues in the second sentence:

   When she had learned to make her name she began to put herself
   forward, traced K.V. in lemon polish on a chair back, through frost
   on a window, icing on a cookie. K.V. Which meant: Me, I. Which was:
   Her. A high-minded child, body small for her age, and so alive....
   She'd been a tiny yeasty and doughy person going to and fro with a
   huff and a puff, as though the day was all she had, and at the same
   time, thinking the day would go on for good. As though she were
   living in eternity (5).

We encounter here a protagonist whose delicately budding sense of self excites and engages our sympathy toward her and her gentle-hearted ambitions. We readily indulge her innocent feeling that her soft reiterations of her name provided her with a means of gaining some control over her place in her social world, a means to "put herself forward" within the social context in which she has begun to enwrap herself. Even when, a few lines later, the narrator takes us out of the solipsistic delights that the child imagines for herself (4)--delights, to be sure, made worrisome for the reader by the narrator's ominous use of the conditional--we still cling to the feeling that Katya's lively spirit will provide the prevailing narrative energy of the novel. …

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