The acclaimed Canadian poet Sarah Klassen’s newest work is a novel about Mennonite family life in Ukraine during the early 20th century. The story centers on a Mennonite couple’s adoption of a Russian infant about 1904 and their family life during the last years of Romanov imperial rule.
Set in a fictional Mennonite village as well as in the Ukrainian regions around Kharkov (Kharkiv) and Barvenkovo, this book provides a com-pelling point of access into ordinary (and extraordinary) people’s lives against a backdrop of cultural upheaval, political instability and economic uncertainty.
In the prologue, we learn that most of the main characters, members of the Albrecht family, have recently emigrated from Russia, escaping civil war and compounding violence. Left behind is an adult daughter, Sofia, who hopes she will soon join her parents and siblings abroad but is making one last visit to the family’s home village of Friedental. By the time she returns there, most of Friedental’s Mennonites have already departed. It is a liminal moment for Sofia, whose childhood and coming-of-age years have been marked by her dual identities (born Russian and raised Mennonite); her physical disability (mobility issues due to a “crooked back”), her outsider status within a tight-knit community and her grief stemming from personal tragedy.
As the novel unfolds, we learn more about Sofia’s earlier life. An inquisitive and thoughtful child, she wonders about her birth parents and the circumstances through which the Albrechts took her into their home. At times, the novel’s storytelling shifts to the parallel perspectives of her adoptive parents. Her mother Amalia and father Isaak, while loving and generally well-intentioned, are troubled by conflictual family dynamics and fretful about an unraveling social order. The biblical allusion “war and the rumor of wars” hovers as a shadow over the Albrechts’ lives and those of their extended family, as well as their landless Russian employees, whose daily labor is essential to the functioning of the Albrechts’ household and farm.
Over the story’s 20-year time frame, Amalia and Isaak Albrecht face challenge upon challenge. Some are highly personal and closely-guarded — infertility, depression, the breaking of sexual taboos and generational conflict. With neighbors and friends, including an endearing preacher to whom they often turn for counsel, they navigate trials through revolution and war, including a typhus epidemic, falling land prices, changing conscription policies that draw young Mennonites into militias and edicts requiring the housing and feeding of military officers as Russia’s civil war drags on.
Through all this, Sofia is for her parents both a source of joy and consternation. Her questioning of cultural mores within village life, as well as ideas that she picks up while boarding at the Zentralschule (a secondary school aimed at training future teachers and ministers), in turn influence her younger twin siblings. These younger Albrechts are precocious in their own way. Sofia’s adolescent brother Boris asks a question that must have been anathema to Friedental elders: “Does God love the Mennonites more than he loves Russians?” Sofia’s younger sister Hannah is an aspiring teacher whose passion for Russian language and literature threatens her Mennonite family’s sense of cohesion.
This novel appears at a time of heightened interest in Russian- Ukrainian relations. Now in her 90s, author Sarah Klassen has spent much of her life in Manitoba, teaching literature in addition to publishing poetry and fictional portrayals of early 20th-century Russian Mennonite life. Her knowledge of Ukrainian landscapes and culture is informed, in part, by having taught English briefly at a language institute in Kharkiv. The storylines in The Russian Daughter have their origins in an account that Klassen’s mother (herself an émigré from Ukraine) once told her about a Mennonite couple from her own village who, long ago, tried to adopt a child.
An interview of Klassen in the Winnipeg Free Press suggests the thematic material in this novel offers a historical opening for readers “barraged with media reports of unspeakable destruction of cities, infrastructure and human life in Ukraine.” Klassen suggests that “while the shape of suffering may be different,” the quest for solace and reclaimed peace among people of Ukraine today echoes, and perhaps even mirrors, the wartime struggles of her cast of characters. It is a notion that lingers well past the closing pages of this finely detailed work.
Rachel Waltner Goossen is professor emerita of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.