Review: Mennonites Don’t Dance

Ever since reading The Divinity Gene, I cannot get enough of short stories! And does it seem only to me that Canadians are at the forefront of producing excellent, high-quality short fiction? Admittedly, I’ve only been reading Canadian short fiction, but with each collection completed, I feel they keep getting better and better!

What originally drew me to Mennonites Don’t Dance is this haunting and beautiful cover. But the moment I began reading, I just could not put it down! The Globe and Mail review says it is “arresting, mesmerizing, authentic, stunning”. Yes, yes, yes and yes!

I do believe this is my favourite collection so far. Again, as the G&M says, the characters and stories are so authentic. I couldn’t agree more with that word – authentic. Because every character written in this collection is genuine and well, yes, authentic. Each person is perfectly portrayed in a perfectly described setting or situation.

Elizabeth and I were planning a combined “Thistledown Press books review”, as she has the short story collection, The Maladjusted, sent to us by the author, Derek Hayes, but I couldn’t hold out! And perhaps both these collections are deserving of their own moment anyway.

Luna, is the first and the longest in the collection. Jonah is the farmer’s son realizing that people and life aren’t as what his father feels they are,  “You’re wrong you know, Jonah says quietly to his father, you’re wrong about people.”

Beautiful, knowing phrases like, ” At barely fifty,Jonah’s father wasn’t old enough to have been busy dying for so many years.” do stun you into stopping for a few moments and pondering their meaning. Right before Jonah feels himself falling in mannerisms and jaded thoughts too similar to his father, something happens to set him back on the right path again. A moving story.

Ashes, a story of a newlywed couple living with his mother. It brilliantly relates all the hidden jealousies and misunderstandings between a mother-in-law and her new, naive, not good enough daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law just doesn’t understand, if she only knew, if she were only stronger. The mother-in-law that is sour, jealous and bland. And then, in the end, comes complete understanding and love. It is written with such great subtlety and just absolute authenticity in the two women. Loved it.

Ice House is another story I really enjoyed, the punch at the ending too was superb. It focuses Ani, returning to her home that she shared with her mother and step-father and through flashbacks to those first years of coping with a step-father that isn’t all he was originally cracked up to be. It is the ending where Ani realizes that her mother perhaps made the biggest sacrifices and they were done all for Ani, that really gives this story its great ending.

Perhaps the most moving and possibly my favourite in this collection was Little Lamb. For one, she doesn’t paint that Mennonite father in a favourable light (or the Mennonite upbringing)! But Henry just broke my heart. Henry is the one people think may be stupid, but he’s just soft and sensitive, something that is extremely distasteful to his father. The ending of this story still haunts my thoughts.

Mennonites Don’t Dance is the second longest story. It is full of emotion. Emotions of sibling love and inability to recover from loss of a favourite brother, embarrassment of the family’s beliefs, and desperation to be an independent woman. But in the end, you cannot escape where you come from, or that need for your family and for Lizbeth, the absolute need for her mother’s love.

A few stories later we come to Magpie. I really enjoyed this one as it is a continuation of sorts from Mennonites Don’t Dance. Magda is Lizbeth’s daughter and we now experience her coming of age as we glimpsed Lizbeth’s.

Dandelion Wine and Loft each deal with siblings and their often uncertain relationship with their mothers. Each story perfectly captures the coming-of-age and awkward moments between daughters and mothers.

Undone Hero is another gem. Alec is caring for his father in his old age, his sister Cassie left town years before and will never be back, his mother dead years before. Alec is reflecting on what kind of father he and Cassie had, the good, the bad, the ugly, the Mennonite and some of the events when he and Cassie were younger. It’s a heartfelt story written in a very familiar manner for those caring for an elderly parent, whether they wish to be or not.

Nella Pea is the final story in the collection and filled with sadness. Nella Pea is what Penelope’s mother, Ada called her. We’re listening to Penelope’s story through her (never named) daughter. Penelope has died, and the daughter has returned to the house to clear out her personal items and read Penelope’s journal. It’s a story of growing up with a mother suffering from severe depression. And that depression has passed from one mother (Ada), down to her daughter (Penelope), so that now Penelope’s daughter too must remember her upbringing in a home filled with ever-present sadness.

I don’t think there was one in this collection that I did not care for. I did not feel that any of them ended abruptly or left me confused or wanting for more. Each story provides a perspective of family, many of what it is to come from a Mennonite family. Each story is a realization – the realization that you are a product of your family, you are forever shaped by and forever tied to that family. Your family is at the core of everything you do and are.  If you wish to foray in to short stories, may I suggest this collection to start with? I was so impressed and she has such great talent,  I hope a full length novel is in store for our reading pleasure in the future? Or, really, more short stories would be fine too!

That Globe and Mail Review I’ve mentioned can be found Here

You can find Darcie’s website here and she’s also on Facebook.

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack was shortlisted for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Award and 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for First Book, Canada and Caribbean Region. It was also shortlisted for the OLA Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Fiction.

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13 thoughts on “Review: Mennonites Don’t Dance

  1. Oh Ashes, my favourite! That description of the tomatoes and their delicate seeds…just beautiful.
    One of my favourite books, too. Lovely review!

    • Thank you so much Kim! And thanks for sending the review to Darcie (wow! thanks!) and for giving us her Twitter handle too. Everything in it was so well written! The details, the emotions… And Ashes! Yes, didn’t she brillantly describe the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law dynamic? Loved how that story ended!

  2. I am not much of a short story reader becuase I usually want …. more. 🙂 I want to know more about the characters and what is happening beyond the snippet we get to see. This one does sounds good though and I may need to give it a try!

    • Hi Sheila, just to let you know…never once in these stories did I feel like I was left hanging. A few are quite long actually but never did I feel like any ended abruptly! Give these a try! I think you will enjoy!

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Shout Her Lovely Name « literary hoarders

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