Mennonites Don't Dance
   
 

Canadian Literature 215 / Winter 2012

Most of [Darcie] Hossack’s stories are set in an agricultural community of Mennonites near Swift Current, with some characters turning up in more than one story. They are focused on the generations — on how parents, children, and grandchildren interact and shape each other's existence. The title, Mennonites Don't Dance, implies a traditional suspicion of the pleasures of the flesh. But in fact many of these Mennonites do take delight in food, in music, in “a family that laughed together often,” and, we are invited to surmise, in sex as well. Those who refuse these delights cast an oppressive shadow over the others, but the reasons are not primarily theological or even cultural. After we have met a couple of mothers who are clearly suffering from depression, we may be more inclined to recognize the role of mental illness in these stories. The pinched, mean-spirited father in “Luna” and the emotionally abusive stepfather in “Ice House” exhibit pathological symptoms, and their families suffer for them. Nevertheless, the book celebrates some hard-won triumphs over grim situations, moments in which joy and love outlast pain and darkness.
— Paul Denham

 Event, Volume 40.2 (2011

Mennonites Don’t Dance is an impeccably crafted debut from Darcie Friesen Hossack. Containing eleven stories similar in theme, the book falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from [Patricia Best’s] Bird Eat Bird. While I will confess that after a half dozen or so stories I definitely began to feel the wear of repetition—old Mennonites are tough and sometimes real jerks but ultimately they are good people who love their families, whereas young Mennonites yearn to be otherwise but ultimately are not as different from their forbears as they might like—each story is so well written I was able to overlook this feeling. It is a challenge to write stories in which the characters are judging each other while at the same time being judged by the narrator and the readers, without their becoming polarized and hectoring. This is never the case here. The stories look at the characters’ flaws and weaknesses and their differing notions of right and wrong without laying blame.

Hossack writes prose that is unadorned and honest, like the Men­nonites she features. There are no linguistic pyrotechnics here, but a simple grace in the way she uses language. The climactic scenes of these stories would be very much reduced in impact if florid, poetic prose weaseled its way in. A clean, direct sentence is often best, and Hossack seems to know exactly when and where to place one.

The opening story, ‘Luna,’ provides an excellent example of this. From near the end:

Later that night, Jonah woke up and found Hazel on her knees, praying in front of the picture window in their bedroom. He knew without listening to his wife’s whispers that she was busy thanking God for something. Worse, though, he knew she was praying for him. He turned away, waiting to be pulled back down into sleep.

This is such an easy paragraph to ruin, and many a writer would succumb to the temptation. Add an image-rich description of what Jonah sees through the picture window. Throw in a couple of abstract adjectives around his wife’s whispers, or the quality of sleep he is about to be pulled into. In case the reader cannot quite discern what is going on, put in a sentence that lets us know exactly how Jonah feels about what he is seeing. Mention his dreams if possible. There are many ways to go wrong here, and Hossack avoids them all.

The title story, “Mennonites Don’t Dance,’ is a gem. It has the breadth and scope of a much longer work, but focuses only on those moments that are integral and moves deftly past those that are not. When Lizabeth’s brother is killed by the two hoodlums next door, her parents’ compassion for and forgiveness of the killer’s parents create a rift that slowly increases. Eventually she moves out, marries, and avoids contact with her family until she herself has a daughter. The pressures of being an isolated mother with a husband who is every bit as controlling as any Mennonite father bring her to a beautifully nuanced understanding of the people that are her parents. Their subsequent reconnection and the way the story transmits its current down the generations to Lizabeth’s daughter Magda in the subse­quent story, ‘Dandelion Wine,’is brilliant.

These collections have much to offer readers. They are reward­ing, entertaining and engaging. Neither suffers from the plague of so many debut collections, where the author cries out look at me! I’m a writer and I can write! Hey! Pay attention!’ While differing in ap­proaches and styles, both Hossack and Best are confident, sophisti­cated and stylistically mature writers who know what they’re trying to accomplish and how to go about it. Steven Galloway

 

The Winnipeg RevieW

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.
 

The Canadian Book Review, February 2011

Whenever I think about literature about Mennonites, I, like most people I’m sure, think of Miriam Toews and her book A Complicated Kindness. When I came across Mennonites Don’t Dance, the debut collection of stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack, I was interested in reading another book by a different author about this piece of the Canadian identity that is really foreign to me as a Maritimer. These stories revolve around the family dynamics of rural Saskatchewan Mennonites, focusing on the differences between generations. While only a few of the stories are actually connected, all of the stories have a real sense of community. As I read the stories, it felt like I was walking down the street from one family to another, sitting in their living room, and watching a brief episode of their lives. I loved this collection of stories. I didn’t really have any expectations either way as this is a debut collection and I hadn’t read any of the stories in journals. All I knew was the cover art was very nice. Darcie Hossack writes with a maturity that is way beyond a first book. Her prose are sparse and punchy but have a poetic quality, the characters are developed quickly and deeply, and the stories vary from short episodes of only a couple pages to longer 40+ page stories that feel like miniature novels.

The highest compliment that I can pay this book is that it reminded me of the best work of Mavis Gallant. Both writers share many qualities in terms of style of writing and treatment of characters. The cast of the stories are developed on a deep level within a couple paragraphs, as they should be in short stories; there are many characters that are very likable and sympathetic but there are also many characters that are very brash and hard to handle, typically the older generation characters in the stories. Hossack is merciless with her characters. Their experiences and hardships are not sugar-coated. There is death. There is suffering. Through it all though the beauty of the prose reveals a mysterious world unknown to many people.

I read a lot of short story collections. 2010 seemed to be the year of the story with a lot of collections receiving high praise. I’d say this is the best of that crowd. The great thing about a collection of stories is that there are multiple sets of characters, multiple plots, multiple opportunities to leave an impression on the reader. My favorite stories in the book are the title story, “Mennonites Don’t Dance”, and the second story, “Ashes”. A lot of these stories will leave you feeling sad, but many will also leave you feeling hopeful. The Praries have produced so many great writers: Laurence, Vanderhaeghe, Toews, and Kroetsch just to name a few; I think with a few more books under her belt, Darcie Friesen Hossack will join this group. Hopefully we don’t have to wait to long for book number 2.  — Aaron Brown

Globe & Mail (Saturday, February 19, 2011)Arresting, mesmerizing, stunning...

Jonah’s life as a chore-burdened Saskatchewan farm boy is hard enough without the black moods of his father, Abram, who considers himself an abject failure and humanity a plague of locusts. Worse, Jonah’s Uncle Elias is a strong-ox “Samson” of a man whose God-fearing work ethic and bountiful fields have shamed Jonah’s dad for decades.

Winnipeg Free Press (January 15, 2011)

This slender book of 11 short stories is a complex treasure. Each story is wrapped in themes of anger, guilt and the Mennonite work ethic. Thankfully, the jagged edges of this treasure are gilded, occasionally, with grace and hope.

Mennonites Don't Dance is the first book from Darcie Friesen Hossack, who is based in Kelowna, B.C., but probably comes from Saskatchewan, given the contents here. Her writing is crisp, evocative and spellbinding, her characters and plots strong.

Almost all the stories are set in southern Saskatchewan, somewhere outside of Swift Current, in the 1970s and '80s. With black humour and shrewd wit, they explore family relationships.

Mental illness in its twin forms of depression and anxiety are depicted. Anger and gentleness take turns, but there is often the ominous sense that violence is just around the corner.

What makes these stories "Mennonite"? Food and stern spirituality play front and centre. Rollkuchen and borscht are matched with penance and prayer. Hossack is the food columnist for papers in Kelowna and Kamloops, so references to food often include lingering descriptions.

For example, Anke is a middle-aged woman who finds that tomatoes make her "nervous" with their "shameless red and soft flesh that yields to the slightest pressure."

Later, lost in thought, she nearly whips the cream into butter, and her description of that moment is vivid: "Her favourite fork for the task lashes deftly through the thickening foam, the sound of it changing, becoming dull as the cream's volume increases in her mother's old enameled bowl, chipped by two generations of everyday use."

All of the stories feature characters who are emotionally wounded. Sometimes it's clear that the hurt is a result of loss or abuse. Other times, we have no clue why a character is so cantankerous.

In Little Lamb, an older brother wants to warn his kid brother that "mistakes never go unrewarded around here." He muses, "Henry needs to learn that Dad doesn't have any soft edges. He cherishes his anger, keeps it clenched like a closed fist around a sharp pebble until the stone has created a scar."

Lizbeth is a deeply disturbed young woman who appears in two stories, the title piece and Magpie. Her favourite brother was murdered as a teenager when Lizbeth was just 13, and she can't get over his death: "she planted her grief like a seedling in the ground and watered it with anger. At times, she even spoke to it to help it grow."

The story of Lizbeth's decline from a beautiful, happy girl to a deeply depressed adult is tragic and the images linger long after reading.

The glimpses of grace are a relief: the aunt who cooks baby potatoes with cream and dill, the son who cares for his terminally ill, abusive father, the sister who tries to protect her misunderstood sibling.

Hossack's writing may remind readers of Manitoba-born Mennonite authors Patrick Friesen and Miriam Toews. Like The Shunning and A Complicated Kindness, the stories here illuminate the sad reality that not all of Mennonite religion and culture is healthy. And no family is easy.

— Adelia Neufeld Wiens is a Winnipeg freelance writer.

Mennonite Weekly Review, January 2011
I have yet to see a picture of an early Anabaptist, head thrust toward the sun, laughing uproariously. The image of Anabaptists of long ago, and even of Mennonites today, is more likely to be that of serious-minded men and women, eyes to the ground, furtively looking for the enemy. They aren’t vibrant dancers, prancing and flinging their arms about in joyous abandon.

If readers pick up this book of short fiction hoping to find a titillating tirade against Mennonite conservatism, they won’t find it. Non-dancing Mennonites are only mentioned in one story. Yet the stories are about non-dancers, not of waltzes and polkas, but people who fail to find joy in the simple rhythms of life, often not even looking for it, certain it can’t be found.

These 11 stories take place in “Mennonite country” in southern Saskatchewan and focus primarily on relationships, not on church rules and regulations. They’re about the tensions between children and parents, husbands and wives, grandparents and grandchildren, and different ways of looking at life — such as urban and city life, adherence to tradition and searching for new ways.

Hossack captures well the mien of the descendants of the early Mennonite settlers in southern Saskatchewan faced with struggle after struggle to survive, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, not realizing they have choices about attitude even when they seem to be losing. One young father, faced with an undiagnosed illness, immediately fears he is destined to die young.

Fathers are hard workers, forced to grub in the dirt, fight grasshoppers and drought to make a living. They are hard-nosed, often stingy as keepers of the family purse. They make the family’s decisions.

Stern and rough-spoken, even vulgar at times, the fathers expect much of their children. Children’s attachments to pets like kittens are discouraged, even denied.

But mothers can also be miserly, harsh and bossy, even as they work hard to keep a clean house, a well-set table, a large garden. They are the keepers at home. They don’t drive. Calorie-laden verenike and rollkuchen, mainstays of Russian Mennonite diets, buoy up spirits in stressful times.

These people, like the kittens in one story, suffocate and die when confined or break like delicate teacups when dropped. Yet there is a near-hidden shining to them. Mixed in with their frailties are love of family, prayer, thankfulness, generosity, faith and the ability to forgive even the ugliest actions, even murder.

A few characters allow a glimpse of hunger for celebration and beauty. There is a yearning to break free. One mother makes dandelion wine but keeps it in a secret pantry rather than serving it openly.

A father may order his son to kill his pet lamb as punishment, as one young boy learns. In a second marriage the new wife discovers that a new marriage means new rules. A second wife says to a daughter who doesn’t want to sleep in her stepsister’s bedroom, “You cook in the first wife’s kitchen and sleep in her bed.” But you make it your own. You borrow a “cup of grace.”

The stories are well written, with vivid imagery, by someone who knows well the rural prairies and the Mennonites who lived there. — Kathie Funk Wiebe

Katie Funk Wiebe, of Wichita, Kan., is professor emeritus of English at Tabor College.

 

       

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