I found just such a story when I recently read I Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby. In this beautifully rendered story, she serves her readers a slice of life on the colony from her perspective of a young child after her mother had given birth to a younger sibling:
As soon as she arrived home from the hospital, Mother entered die Wuchen, a six-week period of special treatment extended to women after the birth of each child. This included a nine-week exemption from colony duty. Peterana was the cook for nursing mothers, and she delivered delicacies to our house every day. Rich foods like Nukkela Suppen (buttery dumplings), waffles soaked in whiskey, and plump cuts of chicken were carried over from the community kitchen in bowls and stainless-steel pails. While the rest of the colony ate regular fare at the long tables in the community kitchen, Mother had the privilege of inviting family and friends to dine with her at home. Most often, her guest of choice was my father.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a gifted storyteller. I am with her in Kindergarten, which she started, as all other Hutterite children at age two and a half, when they began their religious training. She describes the soft, fresh buns after dipping them into Schmond Wacken (cream) with generous dollops of jam that she enjoyed for breakfast, and the stories, songs and games she participated in. I am with her when she and the other children went on outings to see the geese or visit the colony gardens. I feel as though her memories and mine meld when she describes opening the pods in the pea patch and pulling baby carrots from the ground.
Kirkby's childhood was as nearly idyllic as a child's can be. I love the way she sets the background for the day her life was to change forever when she was ten years old:
Across the western sky, the rich red, orange, and gold tones of a spectacular Manitoba sunset were bringing the soft summer day to a close. We felt spoiled by its beauty in Fairholme, for over and over again, even in the harshest of winters, we were treated to its splendor. Against this magic expanse of space, I was playing dodgeball with the children from the Essenschul. We all had the giggles, and our laughter infected a group of adults who had come to watch… I, as wide as was tall, kept eluding the ball….
Above the merriment, a voice pierced the warm air…
I won't spoil the story, but I will say that life on the colony was less than idyllic for Mary-Ann's father. And here is where I actually identify with Mary-Ann's parents for the tough choice they had to make, even though I know that life for Mary-Ann and her siblings was about to change… and not necessarily for the better.
I Am Hutterite is a wonderfully sensual story about Hutterite life, which does exactly what I thought such a story would… it brings Hutterites down to earth and puts a human face on them.
The same way that Kirkby's childhood story is nearly idyllic, so is this book nearly perfect. But I have three criticisms.
1. There is a subtitle on this book, "The fascinating true story of a young woman's journey to reclaim her heritage." There was only a very small portion of Kirkby's story that pertained to this, so I feel like this subtitle is not very accurate. And to that end, I wonder if Kirkby isn't trying to have it both ways… claim she is Hutterite, while still enjoying the personal freedom she would have to sacrifice if she were to actually rejoin life on the colony. Perhaps it comes of those good memories of her Hutterite childhood.
2. I love the first 198 pages of this book, but then Kirkby "summarizes" the rest of her story and wraps up loose ends much too quickly. I would have preferred that she save this part of her story for a sequel, so that she could tell the story in the same sensual details with which she had told her story thus far.
3. I read somewhere on Kirkby's website that she learned the art of telling stories from life on the colony. I felt I missed something, because I would have loved to have "been there" during a story-telling session.
Perhaps Kirkby did learn how to fashion a good story from her people, but I cannot believe that all her talent comes from observing the masters — I am willing to bet that she was born with her gift for storytelling that was then nurtured in her original community. Either way, I am glad she used her talent to bring us the story, I Am Hutterite. It carries an important message about a little-known culture in North America.