Book Book Review, Title The Blue Mountains of China, Author Rudy Wiebe, Rating 4.0, Wandering Mennonites
The Blue Mountains of China is compelling and candid historical novel that tells the story of a set of Mennonite immigrations from the Ukraine SSR to Siberia, Canada, Paraguay, and briefly, China. The novel begins with a series of loosely connected chapters which move forward in time, and focus on individual and interior responses to the privations endured by Mennonites, who either are being forced from their land or are seeking that next elusive place on earth where Mennonites can be Mennonites.
It is ultimately a convergent novel, with characters separately developed in early chapters being linked together as a saga of several families interrelated by beliefs, culture, and circumstance.
I chose to read it because my paternal line comes from the same Mennonite background, and in fact, emigrated to the US from the same Mennonite colony, Molotschna, in the Ukraine SSR whence this story originates.
Molotschna Colony map, detail. PD-US. Click to view enlarged picture
I found this novel to be quite moving, and wonderful in depicting the lives and thoughts and beliefs of my ancestors. The writer is respectful of the Mennonite community and of the devotion to God that many in that community try to include in their daily lives. At the same time, the characters are very human and flawed, and the writer is candid in his depiction of some of the real problems and issues that the Mennonites struggled with, including the often exaggerated insularity, rigid communal expectations, and the piety that could be over-stressed to the point of missing Christ’s message regarding treatment of our fellow men, among others. He doesn’t miss the complexity of martyrdom or deep sacrifice that several of his characters show, bringing out the quiet personal courage of someone acting on their convictions while also showing the apparent futility of some of these actions.
The novel opens with the kulakization and collectivization of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s in the USSR, where Mennonite and peasant agricultural villages of the Ukraine and other areas were deliberately dismantled by the state using the most cruel, brutal and murderous methods (see Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine for a general history of this time), including mass starvation. The author uses local and individual stories to show the effects of this policy on the Mennonites without specifically describing the larger history.
Greater Khingan Mountains aka Blue Mountains of China. Oregon Scribbler.
Through his patient development of characters he fleshes out the effects of Mennonite beliefs and culture in response to these terrible events in history, following people who were arrested and removed from their families or killed by the secret police, people who returned to once vibrant and well off villages only to find them being dismantled board by board or destroyed, people who left their villages, one step ahead of the authorities, to try to leave the country, some who are exiled against their will to Siberia, some who escape from Siberia to the Blue Mountains of China(Whence the Blue Mountains? See note 1.), and so on. Most of those who manage to survive end up in other parts of the world where the land is so poor that it is given away to newly arrived immigrants, like parts of western Canada, the semi-desert of Paraguay, and Siberia, and struggle to establish themselves in yet another place.
The novel celebrates the endurance of these Mennonites, and their faith that sustains them in these often hard times. The author finishes the story with two beautiful chapters that help bring out the uniqueness of Mennonite ideals, and the radical Christian ideals that fueled the birth of the Mennonite movement, and that still lives in some of its practitioners, almost despite the rigidities of their micro-denominations and closed societies that exist side by side and in contrast to those ideals.
This novel is very thoughtful and highly recommended to someone who seeks to put a human face to the Mennonite immigration sagas. It requires some patience to acclimate to the author’s literary techniques, which are more inward-directed than straightforward linear plot; as well the author provides the reader with little context for the Mennonite historical situation, beliefs and culture which the reader needs to fully appreciate the story, so a little extra reading would help to fill in these gaps: Kroeker’s Introduction To The Russian Mennonites is brief account (111 pages) that provides a good part of that context.
On a final note, the Russian Mennonites spoke Mennonite Low German, or Plautdietsch. The author employs an unusual technique that brings alive the native rhythm of Mennonite speech and thought; his novel is written in English, with a few Low German words sprinkled in, but many of the interior monologues are grammatically constructed as if in Low German, giving the sensation of listening to the character’s thoughts in the rhythm of their native language.
1.Where are the Blue Mountains of China? The “Blue Mountains” of the title and chapter 9 appear to be the Khingan mountains of northeastern China. There is an actual event of Siberian Mennonites escaping to China across the frozen Amur River from the Shumanovka village in the Usman settlement near Blagoveshchensk. The Chinese Khingan mountain ranges are southeast and southwest of this area, and they could be described as “blue” as seen through the sometimes hazy sky.