‘Mennonites Don’t Dance’ by Darcie Friesen Hossack

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Robin Dudgeon

If there’s two things Mennonites know it’s family and food. Mennonites Don’t Dance, Darcie Friesen Hossack’s debut collection of short fiction, contains both.

The eleven stories held between its covers juxtapose Mennonite tradition with the modern world and emphasize the differences between generations, whether it be a woman and her daughter-in-law as in Ashes, a mother and daughter as in “Dandelion Wine,” or a son and his elderly and dying father as in”Undone Hero.” Each story is a snap shot, a moment in the lives of its subjects, which almost always includes the preparation or eating of food in the storyline. Tradition can bring these families together or tear them apart, but in the end blood is always thicker than water.

Hossack writes in such a way that the sounds, smells, and stories nearly come off the page. You can almost smell the rollkuchen, hear the crisp crunch of fresh watermelon, and taste the sweetness of dandelion wine. Her prose is simple but delicate, plain but punchy. In the opening story “Luna,” Hossack describes Elias Froese as a Samson of a man who works as though “his sweat was being exchanged for jewels in his heavenly crown,” and that the illness that finally claimed him caused his skin to have, “slackened like soft clay sliding off his bones.”

Hossack also creates characters that are real and storylines that often veer off in dark and disturbing directions. What makes the book so compelling are these believably human and often flawed characters (especially among the older ones), who not only defy Mennonite stereotypes, but move the reader in the process, with their humanity and their depth. One such example is Abram Froese in “Luna.” Froese is a plausibly bitter, miserable old man who refers to God as the “Old Bastard Upstairs” and tells his young son Jonah that people are a plague: Abram absorbs compliments to his brother like a blow to the stomach. When he gets home he punches a hole in the wall that Jonah has to patch with plaster.

In addition to juxtaposing tradition with modernity, each of the eleven stories seems to be united by what is left unsaid. Not only does Hossack not tie up the loose ends, but she never tells the reader what to think.

The title story not only has this struggle between old and new but it is also open-ended. In it Lizabeth Klassen is the rebel in a family of eight children, the one everyone assumes will eventually fit the mould:

More than anything Lizabeth wanted to go to a matinee… but because hundreds of years of Mennonite tradition weren’t about to give her a day off to indulge in some civilization, she swaddled herself in an apron first thing every morning, just like her mother and sisters. Sisters, who unlike Lizabeth, never thought of running to the edge of their village to see whether they’d fall off a precipice. Straight into the real world.

And she did fall into the real world. After high school Lizabeth got a job, married a non-Mennonite her parents did not approve of, and had a baby girl. Despite living in Calgary, when things fell apart Lizabeth’s family was there. The closing scene, to me, was what made this book so good. Beautifully and economically Hossack crafts a silent understanding as Lizabeth stands in the doorway and watches her mom in the kitchen, baby balanced on one hip, making chokecherries into syrup and chicken soup with star anise, as relaxed as if it were her own kitchen.

Interestingly enough Hossack picks up this story line again in Magpie, with Lizabeth’s daughter Magda. Magda, nicknamed magpie, now lives with her maternal grandparents after her dad left and mom dumped her there. As the story progresses we can see how Magda’s life was troubled. Her father clearly disliked his in-laws and would go away on ‘business’ any time they were in town, while her mother Lizabeth, clearly became an emotionally unstable adult, and refused to travel to Mennonite country to visit her parents because ghosts lived there. Magda’s world is clearly shaken when she finds out her mother is coming for her, but in the end Hossack seems to suggest the choice is in her hands.

Since its release in fall 2010, Mennonites Don’t Dance has received a lot of praise, including being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for first fiction. The story “Little Lamb” was nominated for the McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize, and “Ashes” and “Dandelion Wine” placed second and third at the Okanagan Short Fiction Contest. A number of the stories previously appeared in literary magazines and anthologies.

Hossack is now writing her first novel while working as a food writer for the Kelowna Daily Courier, Kamloops This Week, and most recently blogging for thepeartree.ca.

Thistledown | 180 pages |  $18.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1897235782

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Robin Dudgeon

Robin Dudgeon is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Uniter, Uptown, LocalFare magazine and others. She graduates from the University of Winnipeg this summer.