- Rudy Wiebe (Author)
Sweeter Than All the World. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Barbara Pell
Rudy Wiebe, one of Canada’s finest writers, winner of two Governor General’s Awards for Fiction, has returned to his Mennonite roots to write his best novel so far: the epic story of a marginalized people, persecuted over five centuries and four continents, courageously maintaining their faith in God, and witnessing the power of “enduring” family love.
For the contemporary protagonist, Adam Wiebe, born on an isolated Alberta homestead in 1935, “everything spoke, and it spoke Lowgerman.” But Adam learns English, leaves his Mennonite community and faith behind, and becomes a wealthy doctor. When his casual affairs destroy his marriage and cause the disappearance of his twenty-five-year old daughter, Adam becomes obsessed with discovering his ancestral history, seeking in the stories of Mennonite suffering and faithfulness the meaning and integrity he has lost.
In ten chapters interspersed with Adam’s contemporary pilgrimage, Wiebe depicts the epic trials of a religious minority driven from Flanders and Friesland to Prussia and Russia, then to Asia, South America, and (if fortunate) Canada. In roughly chronological order the novel presents horrific first-person narratives of suffering, most often from a female perspective: the sixteenth-century women Weynken Wybe and Maeyken Wens, with silencing screws on their tongues, burned at the stake for their Anabaptist beliefs; the nineteenth-century Anna Wiebe, sacrificially serving her family on the brutal trek to the Russian steppes to save her brothers from Prussian Army conscription; the ninety-year-old Katarina Loewen Wiebe, in 1941 recounting all of her family dead in a lifetime of Ukrainian wars and ghettos; and, most terribly, Elizabeth Katarina Wiebe’s story of the rape and murder of nurses caught in East Prussia in 1945 when the advancing Red Army took its revenge. The men’s tales are more political and indicate their relative power in a patriarchal culture even under persecution: Enoch Seeman, exiled by his own church’s narrow legalism, who finds success as a portrait painter in London; and—framing the novel—the story of the earlier, archetypal Adam Wiebe (Wybe Adams van Harlingen 1584? –1652) whose engineering inventions saved the city of Danzig and earned him, if not equal citizenship, at least a comfortable life and future hope for later Wiebes.
In his prosperous present, the new Adam Wiebe has to repossess his past, translating his historical voyeurism (symbolised by his obsession with The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, 1660) into personal commitment and family love. He finally does this at his sister’s funeral, making himself vulnerable when he confesses her love, forgives his brother, and begs his wife for absolution. At the end of the novel he buys his parents’ homestead, shares his family history with his son, and reunites his “family” with his returned daughter. They embrace in a circle, “Trying to feel every bone in every individual body, and feeling at last their hearts beat the conviction of their enduring love.”
The theological themes of the novel go beyond the power of human love. They explore the complex and irresolvable connections between sin, suffering, grace, and (Wiebe quotes Graham Greene) “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” with biblical archetypes of the first and second Adam and the story of Cain and Abel. Wiebe also connects Adam’s pilgrimages to European shrines with his arctic expeditions with aboriginal friends; in Chapter 4, a Dogrib elder foreshadows Adam’s final lesson: “to live as good a life as the Creator has given us, live it until we die.” The title, echoing the old Mennonite hymn, expresses the essence of Wiebe’s theme, and the source of love:
Christ will me His aid afford
Never to fall, never to fall...
Sweeter than all the world to me...
Sweeter than all, sweeter than all.
There are two potential problems, however, with this novel. First, there is an enormous cast of characters over five centuries, most of them named Wiebe or Loewen (even Adam’s wife, Susannah Lyons, turns out to be a closet Loewen). But it is not necessary to work out all the genealogical intricacies; the point is (as any Mennonite will tell you) they are all related. The second difficulty is the graphic—but not exploitative—depiction of human brutality and suffering. One answer, of course, is that such brutality is known and experienced by most of the world. The other is that this novel is an embodied argument for Mennonite pacifism. Wiebe has written his finest, most mature work yet.
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MLA: Pell, Barbara. Mennonite Masterpiece. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 185 - 186)
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