John Sheriff is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Bethel College and former Ernest E. Leisy Professor of English at Bethel College.
Rudy Wiebe, Sweeter Than All The World. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001. Pp. 438. ISBN 0-676-97301-X
This novel is a compendium of memories, a collection of stories of the dead and the living; those from the past are told in the first person. The story of Adam Wiebe, the novel's central character, is told objectively by an implied narrator/author, but the story can only come forth from an intelligence that has read the letters, looked at the pictures, visited the sites, studied the history, heard the stories as Adam Wiebe has. The first of the first-person narratives is told by the daughter of Weynken Claes, whose death by fire in the Hague in 1527 was recorded in The Lord's Sacrifices (1562) and the Martyrs Mirror (1660). Perhaps the most riveting of the first-person narratives is that told by Elizabeth Katerina Wiebe about her fate and that of the old people she cared for at the hands of Russian soldiers in 1945.
Always the voices of the ancestors speak as if in Adam's head in time present. For example, Jan Adam Wens in telling his story says, "I built the wide stone base of the fountain [the Neptune Fountain in Danzig] where it still stands after 370 years" (72). Jan Adam Wen's mother Maeyken Wens was burned at the stake January 28, 1628, and his hands were scarred for life by the hot tongue screw that he picked up from her ashes at age three. "Sometimes," Jan says, "I see my scarred hands and tools chipping away forever at what already exists: our immovable past. . . . Hand, hammer, chisel, stone and the years of our life, we keep on trying to split and shape them right; so they will fit. . . . If you could remember perfectly, could you shape a horror the way you work a stone? Shape it for what? To build what?"(65). His work, his scars, his questions still stand after 370 years and they become part of Adam Wiebe's life experience.
An early chapter in the story tells of a caribou hunt in the Northwest Territories when Adam is still in medical school and single. Two events in this chapter become emblematic for Adam and the reader. Adam shoots a caribou, twice, in the spine and heart, but the caribou will not fall. His hunting guide tells him, "Sometimes they're dead on their feet but won't go down, like, Hey, this is my land, I live here, who are you?" (45). Adam can skin the caribou, can offer thanks to the caribou spirit for "this gift" (as the Dene suggests he should), can carry it on his back, but he cannot make it fall. That is about as explicit as the novel comes to saying how Adam or Jan or any of the other characters in the story should live with their obdurate memories and astonishing experiences.
The other event in this chapter that cries out for a metaphorical reading is when Adam has the insight that "The story of his life he has lived . . . will live, his singular life . . . is already, and simply, complete"(62). Napoleon, the wise, old tundra native tells Adam that if you know how to look "it's already there"(60). "If everything can be seen as having already happened, then there is nothing, further, to be scared of"(60). Knowing "how to look" comes with knowledge gained from experience, from listening to the voices of nature and community.
How to deal with the past, with stories of the past, with one's heritage, is a pervasive theme of the novel. Adam, on a return trip to the Northwest Territories with his son Joel 29 years after the hunting trip, muses about David Loewen and his wife Anna: "Fifty-nine years in Paraguay, and the Russian Mennonite villages are still so real to them. And all the relatives . . . lost or not, every one of hundreds of relatives" (202). Adam's wife, children, and transitory lovers all wonder what Adam is making of his memories. Karen, one of the many women in his life, says to him in Prague in 1988, "You travel the world and see nothing but your past, your ancestors, yourself" (169). His son Joel tells him, "You paddle this nice empty tundra . . . and you still just think about all your lost uncles" (199).
Susannah, Adam's wife, knew her father only as Bud Lyons, although we learn that his real name was Abraham Loewen. When Susannah and Adam learn about her ancestry, that among them were followers of Claus Epp and that Susannah and Adam are probably cousins, Adam offers to track her family. Susannah chooses not to know, "Leave it alone! . . . My father had all his life to tell me what he wanted me to know. If he wanted his past to die with him, maybe, if I love him, I should leave it alone"(384).
The ability to see that Adam's story is already complete in its every part comes most fully to the reader in the second reading of this novel, when we see that Adam's entire life is prefigured by being named after both his lost uncles, Adam and Heinrich, one the insider, one the outsider who becomes a symbolic other, when we see that his first language is Low German, when we see how hymns keep the peace and cover the hard places for his parents. The second reading is like coming to the stories with the wisdom and ability of Napoleon and is far richer than the first reading. Adam's life, his ambivalence toward himself, his struggle with his cultural inheritance, with family, language, religion, war, sex, love, pain, does not culminate in an explanation or an answer to the many questions that accompany his experience or the experiences of all the voices living in his memory. Logic and reasonableness as bases for decisions about marriage, about splitting up the family, about staying or not staying in a place, banning or burning church members, do not often lead to desired or expected outcomes.
Organized religions, nation states, and wars burned, and drowned, and raped his Mennonite ancestors and scarred their descendants. But Mennonite families and communities inflicted plenty of pain on themselves; they banned and scapegoated each other, sacrificed their babies for their young men, carried bitterness and fractured relations between brothers across continents. This was true for the 16th century Mennists and every succeeding generation and is repeated in Adam's conflicts with his wife and children. Adam's parents are conflicted over the memories of the past, over their treatment by his father's brothers, over his mother's brothers Uncle Adam and Uncle Heinrich, the inconceivable example of how "sometimes Mennonites did it [exile, excommunication, ban, even murder] to each other"(204). Adam no doubt learned the three to four hundred hymns that every person "who sang in a Mennonite Church. . . truly knew by heart"(18), and carried with him the memory of his parents "suspending the thin thread of their songs across the marshes and bitter rivers of their past. Building what bastions? Against what fearfully anticipated or remembered war, against what memory, what knock at the door by police?"(26). His mother's favorite hymn, a Heimatleed, is one of the many "songs of home" that give solace with the knowledge that "On earth you are forever a stranger" and "your true and only home" is with God "where loved ones are already waiting to greet you"(22). But Adam's daughter has another song that is not so soothing and it is not at all clear that any of these family stories have any positive influence on the lives of his children, or on Adam himself.
The movement of the novel is circular as well as linear. The chronological part of the story follows Adam's life, focusing on particular events and moments from 54 years of living. It is the events of Adam's life, with his wife, extramarital affairs, children, and world travels that interact thematically with all the stories of the past. The first 22 of the 23 chapters move from Waskahikan, Northern Alberta (1942) back to Waskahikan (1996) where Adam would like to plant trees of memory in a circle rather than in rows as he saw the birches planted over the graves in Orenburg. Another circular movement is from a scene in an airport in which Adam's family is separating (110) to a scene in which it is coming together (420). The accounts of these scenes are hauntingly similar and are the climax and the denouement, to the extent that there is one, of the novel.
After Adam's story is seemingly told, the book ends with something of a postscript, which is more like a beginning. Adam Wiebe, the 17th-Century inventor of the cable car and builder of the walls of Danzig who could not live within the city, another namesake and relative Adam had discovered at age seventeen, is looking back over his life, sharing the moment and some of the memories with his young granddaughter. The novel ends with the two of them placing a slice of the potato they have dug from the dirt (adam) on each other's tongue: "Potato fresh from the earth, sweet and sharp as coming winter snow, moist together in our laughing mouths"(434).
The novel begins with Adam Wiebe, a descendant of these two, as a pre-school child listening to the voices of the trees, rocks, animals, and birds, of the creek, the night, and the snow. Adam comes to this sensuous world through Low German, and learns English when he goes to school. The new language opens up a new world to him, but his "mother" tongue is the language of his ancestors, of his history, of Adam. He already has "the gift" on his back.
The life-shaping, identity-giving stories are not necessarily even true. When "words [are] carried across continents," "words about facts happening half a world away--especially Lowgerman words--could change, grow, slant, lean into a more cruel and relentless form of torture"(411). "Family stories. . .names. . .the facts can get a little changed" and what one meets in them is both "the living and the dead"(411). This is best illustrated by the case of Heinrich Loewen. Adam is very reluctant to know and to tell the truth about his uncle who has been falsely accused and finally vindicated of the treachery attributed to him by family stories. Adam, repeating his history, wants to be like the Jews "forgiven and chosen"(239), but he remains self-centered and unwilling to accept or pass on an understanding of the past that is contrary to that on which he has built part of his identity.
Any readers who think they can derive from analysis of this historical novel the appropriate attitude toward the 16th century martyrs, the Claus Epp trek, or Mennonite culture and history will find that this is, after all, a novel. If there is a right way of remembering or right use of memory, it is not to be found here. What the novel presents is a spellbinding account of thinking, believing, unbelieving, feeling, remembering persons who have their being and make their choices amidst social, cultural, and existential forces. The novel does very effectively what Rudy Wiebe said many years ago that a novel should do; it presents what "can be seen and shown only by the indirection of art--by metaphor; by symbol" (A Voice in the Land: Essays By and About Rudy Wiebe).
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