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May 1, 2012

Mennonites Don't Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack

I overcame my fear of prairie fiction to pick up Darcie Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance, which was nominated for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Book, was also a 2011 Globe and Mail Best First Fiction Selection, and nominated for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. And I came away from this book hungry. Hossack’s bio lists her as a long-time food writer, and her cred comes through in this collection with its evocative descriptions of Mennonite fare– rollkuchen, varenyky, fresh baked bread, and pies, even the thin ones. (“No wonder we’re all as fat cheese,” a character at one point says.)

Mennonites may not dance, but through these stories Hossack shows that their lives take place on the full spectrum of human experience. Demons are fought, temptations succumbed to, secrets are kept and revealed, a cache of dandelion wine hidden, and characters carry history like an awkward burden that refuses to be shed. The great strength of these stories is the complexity of their people, who struggle between impulses and are most human in their tendencies to choose the path of least resistance. So that the mother or father who has every intention of learning from their own parents’ mistakes finds his or herself falling into the same old patterns worn like grooves in a dusty road.

The stories fall down in their dialogue, however, which never flows as naturally as the rest of the prose, and seems stilted and obvious delivered from characters who are shown to have such rich inner lives. It’s the one indication that this book is a first book, because otherwise, the reader can get entirely lost in the remarkable textures of these stories. In “Luna”, Hossack telescopes time, showing Jonah from boy to man, struggling to be a better man than his father was but finding it easier to forget the lessons his childhood taught him, to carry on a family legacy of anger and bitterness, casting off the reasons he was always sure he wouldn’t. In “Ashes”, a daughter-in-law’s miscarriage opens a mother’s old wound, and fosters a connection between the women for the very first time. In the story “Little Lamb”, which was shortlisted for the Journey Prize, a sensitive boy is toughened up for farm life, steeled with the same hardness we see other characters carry through their lives and how much it is a construction. This story is impressively narrated by the boy’s older brother who has seen it all before. “Dandelion Wine” and “Loft” are also told from the perspective of siblings acting as an awkward juncture between a parent and child’s fraught relationship, pulled by dividing loyalties.

The long story “Mennonites Don’t Dance” shows the disconnect between generations and family members. When Lizbeth’s brother is murdered by redneck neighbours, she views her parents’ passivity in the face of the tragedy as a failure and begins a retreat away from history and tradition, but one so far that she becomes stranded. She is saved by her mother, however, which puts this story apart from others in which parents (burdened by the same hardness as necessitated in “Little Lamb”) are unable and unwilling to catch their children when fall, and also who persist in pushing their children away from them. And I like how the generational breaks here are a two-way street– Hossack’s parent characters are, like all her characters, complicated, difficult, and so are their feelings towards their children.

From “Poor Nella Pea”: “My mother lifted her hand as though she was about to slap me. In one movement though, she lowered her hand and closed the space between us, wrapped me up in her arms. When I tried to pull away, she only held on tighter.”

Hossack’s stories are structured around that push and pull, the tension that life and love is.

One thought on “Mennonites Don't Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack”

  1. alexis says:

    You have a fear of prairie fiction? We are good people, and good writers 😉

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