Mennonite people have been a tangential part of my life since day one. I was born in Steinbach, which at the time was a predominantly Mennonite community, and the doctor who delivered me was Mennonite. My family lived south of Steinbach while I was growing up and we’d often travel to the “Automobile City” to shop or take care of other business. While we would be around Mennonite families, we never had deep friendships with any of them. We knew them in the small town sort of way—people you wave or say hi to but don’t really know. So the Mennonite community remained slightly foreign to me: a familiar unknown.
What is it to be Mennonite? My experiences led me to understand it in a specific way—as German- or Dutch-centric. However, that is less and less the case today. Being Mennonite no longer automatically means that you are based in Germanic culture and ethnicity.
When the topic of Mennonite writers is brought up, Miriam Toews, Rudy Wiebe and others will jump immediately to mind for most book lovers; they are well-known both within and beyond Mennonite circles.
However, there are many other excellent Mennonite writers that do not always get the notice they deserve. Armin Wiebe is a notable Manitoba-based writer who has found success writing about Mennonite subject matter. He is perhaps best known for his trio of comic novels set in the fictional community of Gutenthal: The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, Murder in Gutenthal, and The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst.
Armin’s Shorts is a collection of twenty-five stories that range in tone from comic to tragic, and everywhere in between. While some of his greatest success has come from mining his background, this collection also displays his ability to move beyond the topic of Mennonite culture.
The stories in the first section, “From The Gutenthal Galaxy,” revisit the fictional small town of Gutenthal. In an email conversation, Wiebe pointed out that the first two stories were begun but not completed in time to become part of The Salvation of Yasch Siemens.
The stories that bookend the opening section were my favourites. “Mouse Lake” is a story of love and longing. Shakespeare wrote, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” and this sentiment captures the tone of this story perfectly. The story “Barn Dance” shifts us to another character in the Gutenthal landscape, Koadel Kehler. The story that Koadel narrates finds a way to put a new spin on the “youth in trouble” story with an ending that would be difficult to predict, simultaneously uncomfortable yet endearing.
Throughout that first section, Wiebe captures the essence of the Mennonite farming communities of southern Manitoba. A trademark of his style has been to colour the narration and dialogue with a pleasing menjsel (mixture) of Plautdietsch (Low German) and English phrases and words. According to Wiebe, the language of the Gutenthal stories is reflective of the way his generation used language in the 1950s and 1960s. He’s used it as a literary construct that grows with the characters and their world.
Other highlights from the collection are the award-winning piece “The Little Kollouch” and “February 3,” as well as “And Besides God Made Poison Ivy.” These three pieces highlight Wiebe’s range. “The Little Kollouch” was chosen as winner of the 2002 Prairie Fire Short Fiction Contest, and with good reason. The writing is sharp and blends myth with an edgy, noir undertone. “February 3” is six heartbreaking pages of missteps and life-altering moments tied to the whim of pop culture happenings.
“And Besides God Made Poison Ivy” struck me as a perfectly structured pilot episode for a Mennonite pioneer sitcom. A levelheaded intro is followed by calamity, and the story ultimately concludes with a touching moment. In my imaginary casting of this sitcom, it was no stretch to imagine John Ritter starring as the victim of the calamitous event, Kjrayel Kehler. It’s no surprise that the story became the basis for Wiebe’s debut stage work, The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, which debuted at Theatre Projects Manitoba in 2011.
Other points of interest for readers might include “Old Time Stories,” which revisits Wiebe’s novel Tatsea. The fictional world of Tatsea is set in the Canadian subarctic of the 1760s. “Old Time Stories” packs a fascinating hybrid of history, mythology and elements adapted from other fictions into its eight brief pages. It is a prime example of the type of short story that Wiebe told the Winnipeg Free Press he “wants to grow.” Wiebe indicated in that interview that all his novels have started life as short stories.
The “Olfert” section of the collection is a move into the realm of urban, contemporary fantasy. My favourite piece was “Silo W201,” not just for its surreal peek inside a large insurance firm, but for the enduring, delightful image of camels roaming freely down Portage Avenue.
This collection serves as a good introduction to the fictional worlds that Armin has created over his thirty-year writing career. It also serves as a testament to his willingness to branch out and develop new ideas, explore new voices and tell new tales.
Tucked away at the very back of the book is a short poem, “Return,” which ends with the simple but elegant lines:
I left the phone behind on the piano, charging.
I keep hearing it ring.
The poem stands in stark contrast to the other pieces in the collection, but encapsulates its essence. These stories are the acorns from which “a bouquet of oaks” has sprung.
Turnstone | 252 pages | $19.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-0888015464