Rudy Wiebe's latest novel is at once an enthralling saga of the Mennonite people and one man's emotional voyage into his heritage and his own self-discovery. Ambitious in its historical sweep, tender and humane, Sweeter Than All the World takes us on an extraordinary odyssey never before fully related in a contemporary novel.
The novel tells the story of the Mennonite people from the early days of persecution in sixteenth-century Netherlands, and follows their emigration to Danzig, London, Russia, and the Americas, through the horrors of World War II, to settlement in Paraguay and Canada. It is told episodically in a double-stranded narrative. The first strand consists of different voices of historical figures. The other narrative voice is that of Adam Wiebe, born in Saskatchewan in 1935, whom we encounter at telling stages of his life: as a small boy playing in the bush, as a student hunting caribou a week before his wedding, and as a middle-aged man carefully negotiating a temporary separation from his wife. As Adam faces the collapse of his marriage and the disappearance of his daughter, he becomes obsessed with understanding his ancestral past. Wiebe meshes the history of a people with the story of a modern family, laying bare the complexities of desire and family love, religious faith and human frailty.
The past comes brilliantly alive, beginning with the horrors of the Reformation, when Weynken Claes Wybe is burned at the stake for heretical views on Communion. We are caught up in the great events of each century, as we follow in the footsteps of Adam's forebears: the genius engineer who invented the cable-car system; the artist Enoch Seeman, who found acclamation at the royal court in London after having been forbidden to paint by the Elders; Anna, who endures the great wagon trek across the Volga in 1860, leaving behind her hopes of marriage so that her brothers will escape conscription in the Prussian army; and Elizabeth Katerina, caught in the Red Army's advance into Germany when rape and pillage are the rewards given to soldiers. The title of the novel, taken from a hymn, reflects the beauty and sorrow of these stories of courage. In a startling act of invention, Sweeter Than All the World sets one man's quest for family and love against centuries of turmoil.
Rudy Wiebe first wrote of Mennonite resettlement in his 1970 epic novel The Blue Mountains of China. Since then, much of his work has focused on re-imagining the history of the Canadian Northwest. In Sweeter Than All the World, as in many of his most acclaimed novels, Wiebe has sought out real historical characters to tell an extraordinary story. William Keith, a University of Toronto professor and author of a book about Wiebe, writes: "Wiebe has a knack for divining wells of human feeling in historical sources." Here, all the main characters share his name, and the history is one to which he belongs. Moreover, alongside those flashbacks into history is revealed an utterly compelling contemporary story of a man whose background is not totally unlike the author's own. Wiebe sets his narrative against his two favourite backdrops: the northern Alberta landscape, and the shared memories of the Mennonite people. Sweeter Than All the World is a compassionate, erudite and stimulating work of fiction that shares the deep-rooted concerns of all of Wiebe's work: how to make history live in our imagination, and how we can best live our lives.
In 1944, as war rages across Europe and Asia, famine, violence and fear are commonplace. But life appears tranquil in the isolated farming settlement of Wapiti in northern Saskatchewan, where the Mennonite community continues the agricultural lifestyle their ancestors have practised for centuries. Their Christian values of peace and love lead them to oppose war and military service, so they are hardly affected by the war - except for the fact that they are reaping the rewards of selling their increasingly valuable crops and livestock.
Thom Wiens, a young farmer and earnest Christian, begins to ask questions. How can they claim to oppose the war when their livestock become meat to sustain soldiers? How can they enjoy this free country but rely on others to fight to preserve that freedom? Within the community, conflicts and broken relationships threaten the peace, as the Mennonite tradition of close community life manifests itself as racism toward their "half-breed" neighbours, and aspirations of holiness turn into condemnation of others. Perhaps the greatest hope for the future lies with children such as Hal Wiens, whose friendship with the Métis children and appreciation of the natural environment offer a positive vision of people living at peace with themselves and others.
Wiebe's groundbreaking first novel aroused great controversy among Mennonite communities when it was first published in 1962. Wiebe explains, "I guess it was a kind of bombshell because it was the first realistic novel ever written about Mennonites in western Canada. A lot of people had no clue how to read it. They got angry. I was talking from the inside and exposing things that shouldn't be exposed." At the same time, other reviewers were unsure how to react to Wiebe's explicitly religious themes, a view which Wiebe found absurd. "There are many, many people who feel that religious experience is the most vital thing that happens to them in their lives, and how many of these people actually ever get explored in modern novels?"
The concept of peace is an important theme in Wiebe's first three books. The attempt to live non-violently, one of the basic tenets of the Mennonite faith as taught by the sixteenth-century spiritual leader Menno Simons, is what has "caused the Mennonites the most difficulty in their relationship with everybody," forcing them to move again and again. The theme of peace versus passivity is further explored in The Blue Mountains of China, where inner peace, a state of being, is contrasted with the earthly desire for a place of public order and tranquility where the church is "there for a few hours a Sunday and maybe a committee meeting during the week to keep our fire escape polished," as Thom, the protagonist puts it.. Wiebe has said, "To be an Anabaptist is to be a radical follower of the person of Jesus Christ . . . and Jesus Christ had no use for the social and political structures of his day; he came to supplant them."
While Peace Shall Destroy Many takes place in a Mennonite community, its elements are universal, delineating the way young idealism rebels against staid tradition, as a son clashes with his father. In the face of violent confrontations between beliefs all over the world, the novel remains as compelling now as it was nearly forty years ago.
A Discovery of Strangers is a story--based on true events--of love and innocence, murder, greed and passion set within the terrifying, fragile Arctic landscape. In 1820, John Franklin's small group of British officers and Canadian voyageurs, on their first expedition to search for a route through the incomprehensible North, encounter the Yellowknife Indians -- and Greenstockings, fifteen-year-old daughter of Keskarrah, elder of the Yellowknife, meets young Robert Hood, son of a Lancashire clergyman. Wordless, they devise a language of their own as their two worlds clash.
From the Hardcover edition.
From a 2-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award, an intense novel of loss, memory and the limitless nature of family love.
Hal Wiens, a retired professor, is mourning the sudden death of his loving wife, Yo. To get through each day, he relies on the bare comfort of routine and regular phone calls to his children Dennis and Miriam, who live in distant cities with their families. One snowy April morning, while drinking coffee with his Dené friend Owl in south-side Edmonton, he sees a tall man in an orange downfill jacket walk past on the sidewalk. The jacket, the posture, the head and hair are unmistakable: it's his beloved oldest son, Gabriel. But it can't be--Gabriel killed himself 25 years ago.
The sighting throws Hal's inert life into tumult. While trying to track down the man, he is irresistibly compelled to revisit the diaries, journals and pictures Gabe left behind, to unfold the mystery of his son's death. Through Gabe's own eyes we begin to understand the covert sensibilities that corroded the hope and light his family knew in him. As he becomes absorbed in his son's life, lost on a tide of "relentless memory," Hal's grief--and guilt--is portrayed with a stunning immediacy, drawing us into a powerful emotional and spiritual journey.
Come Back is a rare and beautiful novel about the humanity of living and dying, a lyrical masterwork from one of our most treasured writers.
"Written with primal intensity, touched with redeeming compassion, Rudy Wiebe--has explored our history, our roots and the secrets of our hearts with moral seriousness and great feeling." - Governor General's Award for Fiction Citation, l994
A powerful, major work of non-fiction, beautifully written, with the impact of Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart, from the twice winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the great-great-granddaughter of Big Bear.
This is a story about justice, and terrible injustices, a story about a murder, and a courtroom drama as compelling as any thriller as it unravels the events that put Yvonne Johnson behind bars for life, first in Kingston's Federal Prison for Women until the riot that closed it, and presently in the Okimaw Ochi Healing Lodge in the Cypress Hills. But above all it is the unforgettable true story of the life of a Native woman who has decided to speak out and break the silence, written with the redeeming compassion that marks all Rudy Wiebe's writing, and informed throughout by Yvonne Johnson's own intelligence and poetic eloquence.
Characters and events spring to life with the vividness of fiction. The story is told sometimes in the first person by Rudy Wiebe, sometimes by Yvonne herself. He tracks down the details of Yvonne's early life in Butte, Montana, as a child with a double-cleft palate, unable to speak until the kindness of one man provided the necessary operations; the murder of her beloved brother while in police custody; her life of sexual abuse at the hands of another brother, grandfather and others; her escape to Canada - to Winnipeg and Wetaskiwin; the traumas of her life that led to alcoholism, and her slow descent into hell despite the love she found with her husband and three children.
He reveals how she participated, with three others, in the murder of the man she believed to be a child abuser; he unravels the police story, taking us step by step, with jail-taped transcripts, through the police attempts to set one member of the group against the others in their search for a conviction - and the courtroom drama that followed. And Yvonne openly examines her life and, through her grandmother, comes to understand the legacy she has inherited from her ancestor Big Bear; having been led through pain to wisdom, she brings us with her to the point where she finds spiritual strength in passing on the lessons and understandings of her life.
How the great-great-granddaughter of Big Bear reached out to the author of The Temptations of Big Bear to help her tell her story is itself an extraordinary tale. The co-authorship between one of Canada's foremost writers and the only Native woman in Canada serving life imprisonment for murder has produced a deeply moving, raw and honest book that speaks to all of us, and gives us new insight into the society we live in, while offering a deeply moving affirmation of spiritual healing.
From the Hardcover edition.
Big Bear (1825--1888) was a Plains Cree chief in Saskatchewan at a time when aboriginals were confronted with the disappearance of the buffalo and waves of European settlers that seemed destined to destroy the Indian way of life. In 1876 he refused to sign Treaty No. 6, until 1882, when his people were starving. Big Bear advocated negotiation over violence, but when the federal government refused to negotiate with aboriginal leaders, some of his followers killed 9 people at Frog Lake in 1885. Big Bear himself was arrested and imprisoned. Rudy Wiebe, author of a Governor General’s Award–winning novel about Big Bear, revisits the life of the eloquent statesman, one of Canada’s most important aboriginal leaders.