“I never saw my father saunter,” says Katie Funk Wiebe as she introduces the hero of her latest book — her father, Jacob J. (Jake) Funk. These few words tell readers we are meeting a man of action — a practical, goal-focused, hard worker who, in his prime, was also a passionate preacher.
Jacob Funk has haunted his daughter’s memory — so much so that in her own 91st year (exactly the age of her father at his death), she published a book she’s been writing in her mind for most of her adult life.
What caused a strong, active man of faith to withdraw, even becoming bitter and irritable when no longer a miller, a medic, a storekeeper or a preacher? This question can’t be answered definitively because neither the author nor the reader can fully imagine the inner life of a man whose identity came primarily from his actions.
As Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Wiebe chooses three forms of narrative structure to help explain her father to herself and to readers: the journey, the outsider and complex redemption.
The Journey: Jake Funk grew to adulthood just as World War I and the Russian Revolution were taking place. He moved from Rosenthal/Chortitza in Ukraine to military service in various places, to imprisonment by the Red Army and to a monthlong hunt for his wife’s parents. Finally, in 1923, Jake — with his wife, Anna, and two small girls — emigrated to Laird, Sask. Within Canada, the journeys continued: Saskatoon, Bruno, Blaine Lake, Saskatoon, Blaine Lake, Clearbrook, B.C., and Edmonton, Alta.
If one gets confused, as I occasionally did, by so much change of scenery, one can consult the chronology at the end of the book. It begins with the Anabaptist movement in 1530, when the first migration to Prussia occurs, and ends in 1994 when Anna Funk dies at the age of 99.
Like any memoirist, Wiebe is also asking questions about herself. Having lived past the age of the death of her father, she wonders about his depression in his later years. She offers some clues — his early struggles as a left-handed boy in a right-handed world, leading to his dropping out of school. Another source of psychological and spiritual pain was the status system among the Mennonites that privileged “Flemish” over “Friesian” and landowners over the landless.
The Outsider: By introducing themes of exclusion such as the ones above, Wiebe plants the seeds that will help the reader understand the special nature of her father’s suffering.
The conditions in Russia from 1914 to 1923 reeked of death. Jake was conscripted and allowed to serve as a medic, an experience that brought him face to face with the dead and dying.
According to Wiebe, as many as 85 percent to 90 percent of the Mennonites in Rosenthal/Chortitza were infected by typhus, which they got when forced to house Red soldiers. With little food or soap, people lacked the strength to fight lice, which became aggressive in the extreme. Many people died and were buried in mass graves, partly because the survivors were too weak to dig separate ones. Four Funk family members died within two weeks. Jake had to be “undertaker, minister, mourner and comforter for each one.”
One of the heavy burdens of the Russian Mennonite legacy is the recognition that their prosperous pre-Revolution villages, their high level of literacy, their German language and their closed communities made them few friends among the native proletariat or serfs. Wiebe doesn’t deny prejudice on the part of the Mennonites. They considered themselves superior to the Slavic culture. Rich Mennonites sometimes beat their Russian farm laborers. Jake Funk identified with the peasants, perhaps because he himself had been punished severely for being left-handed in school.
After the 1917 Revolution, the tables were turned. Mennonites and their property became the targets of terror, and the pacifist community was divided about how to respond. But there were also status divisions among the Mennonites themselves.
For example, Jake shouldered responsibilities without help when he was nearly dead himself: “He felt the rejection of the educated rich, usually the powerful church leaders, to his cry for help only because he was the uneducated son of anwohner Johann Funk.” The anwohner were landless families forced to rent from the wirte, or landed farmers.
Emigration to Canada ended the worst danger and privation, but life was still hard for Jake and his family. They survived on his earnings as a storekeeper but struggled under the obligation to pay back the travel debt owed to the Canadian railroad for their transport from Russia, especially while feeling the lingering effects of the Great Depression.
Complex Redemption: Surprisingly, though the story of Jake Funk’s life borders on tragedy many times, it includes comic elements. Most of the humor comes from the author, whose asides throughout the book enliven and lighten it. The author was born in Canada, and her memories as a child include playing creatively with her siblings and achieving academic success in the new country. The father she knew best in her youth was a successful storekeeper and preacher.
Wiebe could have forced the story into the most universal of all North American themes — redemption — and could have omitted the sadness of depression and occasional loss of purpose at the end of her father’s long life. Instead, she takes solace in his faithfulness, under all circumstances, and probes for stories in his early life that explain the sadness at the end. Legacy, she recognizes, does not come prepackaged. It has to be explored.
This is the memoir of a dutiful daughter whose father may not have sauntered in life but who shines with remembered light as he emerges on the page.
Shirley Hershey Showalter’s memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, was published by Herald Press in 2013. She blogs at shirleyshowalter.com, where readers interested in writing memoir can find tips and writing prompts.