Promise and Prosperity?
- Aksel Sandemose (Author) and Christopher S. Hale (Editor)
Aksel Sandemose and Canada: A Scandinavian Writer's Perception of the Canadian Prairies in the 1920s. Canadian Plains Research Center (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Arthur Kroeger (Author)
Hard Passage: A Mennonite Family's Long Journey from Russia to Canada. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sue Sorensen
Arthur Kroeger’s memoirs of his family’s experiences in the Chortiza region of Russia in the early twentieth century and their immigration to southeastern Alberta in 1926 are remarkable for his felicitous details, his even-tempered handling of painful history, and his prudent selection of family memories. As anyone who has ever written (or read) family histories can attest, this is a genre fraught with peril. It is easy to remember only crisis or saintly sacrifice, and the details intriguing to the inner circle may be considerably less thrilling to an outsider. The subcategory of Mennonite personal history is also a tricky one to negotiate. Russian Mennonites are particularly devoted to safeguarding the memory of their Golden Age colonies near the Black Sea, and have carefully and reverently chronicled the memories of those who died in the dark years that followed 1914. These were years of war, of civil conflict after the Russian Revolution, of typhus in 1920, of famine in the early 1920s. The reasons to lament were many: and then came Stalin’s oppression. It is true that this era has been preserved by recent Mennonite historians, and one wonders if the story has already been told. But Hard Passage is a well-researched and very lucid account that will be a valuable addition to the historical record.
It helps tremendously that Arthur Kroeger knows public policy as well as he knows his family history. This is what gives Hard Passage an extra dimension of interest. Kroeger spent many years as a Federal civil servant, for example as Deputy Minister of Transport, and his knowledge of immigration issues and Canadian social policy are invaluable here. The book is evenly divided between the Kroeger family’s struggles in Russia and in Canada. In some surprising instances, the Canadian situation was possibly more brutal. Kroeger reminds us of the Canadian government’s almost complete refusal to be responsible for the poor in the 1930s; even when a 1937 commission found that two-thirds of Saskatchewan farmers were destitute, federal leaders mocked the findings. The Kroeger family wandered between derelict homesteads in the almost unfarmable Palliser Triangle, and it was years before they were finally established on land that they could profitably farm. Kroeger has vivid memories of wind that shook houses off their foundations, of milk made bitter because cattle had only Russian thistle as fodder. He also records pleasant memories. He writes of religious services held in dried-out sloughs, the only green places around, and pays tribute to several key individuals (Mennonite leader David Toews, Colonel John Dennis, and Sir Edward Beatty of the CPR) who worked tirelessly to bring 20,000 of Russia’s endangered 100,000 Mennonites to Canada.
One receives from Kroeger’s memoir a good understanding of just what a difficult decision it must have been to emigrate. Even with a long heritage of persecution and more recent experiences of betrayal, rape, and murder, the Chortiza Mennonites were hesitant to leave. And the Canadian prairies, when encountered, could be uncompromisingly harsh, the farming unprofitable, the loneliness almost unbearable.
Aksel Sandemose and Canada is a volume of impressions of the prairies written at the same time the Kroegers were immigrating to Alberta. Sandemose (1899-1965), a fairly well-known literary figure in Scandinavia, was sponsored by the CPR to travel around the Canadian west and write about immigration possibilities for his fellow Scandinavians. Sandemose was just starting out as a fiction writer in 1927, and he was a good choice for this sort of adventurous junket. He was hardy enough to walk and ride long distances and, apparently, to hop freight trains, and could make himself agreeable enough to get free food and lodging from friendly Danes who might help him with his research. He wrote a number of journalistic pieces about the prairies as well as short stories and novels. The novels, particularly Ross Dane (1928), demonstrate that Sandemose’s exploratory few months in Canada were pivotal for his writing life; although he moved back to Denmark, and eventually to Norway, he continued to contemplate his Canadian experience for many years.
Whether his Canadian experience is as helpful for us is another question. Sandemose had a prickly personality, and his articles tend to be overly tendentious and cranky. “Canada’s prairie has only recently acquired culture, at least in those places where this has happened at all” is a typical remark. He has no interest in Canada’s Native peoples; he is distressed by the “tastelessness” of a locomotive on display in a Winnipeg park; he describes a hellish hotel in Redvers, Saskatchewan as if it were a part of scene out of Dante. The editor of this journalism and short-fiction collection, Christopher Hale, admits that Sandemose freely embroidered and exaggerated his impressions of Canada, and recycled his articles, often publishing them in slightly different forms three or four times. Sandemose was in Canada to make money as a writer, and to size up Canada’s moneymaking potential for his fellow Scandinavians. In the end, his conclusion was that you had to be almost ridiculously hardy to survive in Canada, and that immigrants should think very carefully before making the trip. His journalism should be approached with caution, although it does have some delightful, colourful anecdotes. His fiction has more interest. His voice is quirky and memorable, his women in particular eccentric and powerful, but ultimately these pieces are rather slight.
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MLA: Sorensen, Sue. Promise and Prosperity?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 149 - 151)
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