Friday, March 11, 2011

I Am Hutterite

By Mary-Ann Kirby, 245 pages, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Kirby contrasts the often cold, materialistic, competitive mainstream Canadian society with the warmth, humor, and deep communal feeling of a Hutterite community, where duty, humble service to others, and family life testify to their Christian vocation.

A product of the Protestant Reformation, the Hutterites, a German speaking people who believe in adult baptism and strong biblical precepts, came to North America in the nineteenth-century after centuries of persecution in Europe . They quickly prospered in Canada and America 's West, setting up colonies from Manitoba to Alberta

Kirby tells the story of her father's alienation with communal living, and the sometimes stubborn leadership he endured. Yet she reminisces with fondness, mixing fictional dialogues with informed commentary. The Hutterites' close living requires a sense of humor more than anything, something the author shows quite well, to the amusement of the reader.

Her excellent descriptions of individual Hutterites sound like something from Dickens or the Harry Potter series: "Ona had a round face with a prominent nose, which was a useful tool, considering her vocation. She was an excellent cook, and her ample body supported the notion that she enjoyed her work."

Despite the lack of modern entertainment, including radios, TVs, the Internet, and magazines, the colonists live rich lives, full of eating, drinking, working, daily church attendance, and constant visiting:

"With seven beautiful daughters who attracted their fair share of interest from eligible Buben (young men), Sana Basel's house was always a gathering place, filled with young people who would convene every evening to socialize and sing," she writes.

Aside from a few loners, most of the colonists love to do their daily tasks in the company of others, which according to Kirby, gives the people a richer, deeper personality.

Although her father eventually took them away from the colony, she clearly reveled in community living as a youngster. She contrasts the "relaxed, lighthearted, and social time" where people would often receive "a good-natured ribbing" around the Hutterite mealtable with "the awkward silences at mealtimes in English homes."

The author portrays herself as a perpetual misfit once the family left the colony, but as a perfect fixture when she had lived on the colony. Whenever she visited, she shared her former community's wistfulness for the past unity.

I Am Hutterite's strength is the author's lack of bitterness and mature, matter-of-fact story-telling. The Hutterites believe, she notes, that harsh discipline, including corporal punishment, builds character. Kirby's own mature character shows itself in her lack of bitterness or victim-feeling. The reader begins to respect the Hutterite system as much as she does.

The book is much more critical of mainstream Canadian society, where cold individualism seems to have won the day. Kirby's lively, humorous writing helps readers see how much our individualism and sense of entitlement have cost us, to the detriment of communal and family living.

Upon leaving the colony, she is surprised to see that her first bus driver is an isolated old man with bell's palsey: "On the colony, he would have had his meals brought to him three times a day, enjoyed long afternoon naps, and had his floors washed every Saturday. He certainly would not have been driving children to school on treacherous, muddy roads."

1 comment:

  1. The first blogpost on Hutterites I've seen.

    I'm reminded that the auteur Terence Malick filmed his period piece, Days of Heaven, in and around Hutterite communities in Alberta. The movie won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.