Fifty-seven years ago, a young Mennonite author published a book that turned the Canadian Mennonite world upside down.
That author was Rudy Wiebe, and the book was Peace Shall Destroy Many — the first novel about Mennonites in Canada in English.
The book, which offered an honest and pointed portrait of Mennonite life on the prairies during World War II, provoked a great deal of anger and pain.
“It was hard on them,” said Wiebe, 84, of how it impacted some members of his denomination. “It was a tough story.”
In the book, Wiebe explored how Mennonites in the fictitious community of Wapiti, Sask., opposed the war while, at the same time, their church was divided by conflict and broken relationships.
“It was difficult for the older generation to handle,” he said of the book, which he once described as a “bombshell” for many Canadian Mennonites.
“They didn’t speak English, they weren’t accustomed to reading fiction, and they didn’t share insider problems with the outside world,” he said.
The situation was hard on Wiebe, too. At the time he was the new editor of Mennonite Brethren Herald, the denomination’s official English-language publication. As the criticism mounted, he knew he couldn’t stay as editor.
“I wasn’t fired, but I resigned before they would have fired me,” he said.
That decision led to a distinguished 25-year career as a professor of English at the University of Alberta and as an award-winning author of 33 books, anthologies and collections of essays about faith, life on the Canadian prairies and western Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Along the way, Wiebe was a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the Charles Taylor Prize for his memoir of growing up in Saskatchewan. In 2000 he was named an officer in the Order of Canada.
On April 4, Wiebe received another honor when he was given the PAX award from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man.
The award, created to honor people “who lead exemplary lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society,” was given to Wiebe for how “his works have been critical in exposing societal concerns” and for “the patience and empathy his works awaken,” according to CMU President Cheryl Pauls.
For Wiebe, the CMU award was particularly welcome since it comes from his own faith tradition.
“I have received many other awards, but to get an award like this from my own community is really important to me,” he said.
Committed to the church
Despite how some Mennonites responded to Peace Shall Destroy Many, Wiebe never became angry with the church or lost his faith.
He recently got a letter from an old friend who said “he can’t figure out how I stuck with church,” Wiebe said. But for Wiebe “there’s no great mystery about it.”
One reason is growing up as one of seven children in a caring and supportive MB refugee family in Speedwell, in northern Saskatchewan.
His early church experience was positive. There were “hard-line” leaders, he said, but he also heard messages about the love and mercy of God.
Another reason is the church he and his wife, Tena, belong to in Edmonton, where they live. Lendrum Mennonite is an MB congregation.
“It’s made up of some people that I’ve known all my life and a few I’ve just known for a few years,” he said. “But within a few years you become such close and warm friends.”
The church has “been very supportive of me and my writing and the work I’ve been doing all my life,” he noted, adding members of the church have never been judgmental about what he has written.
The church was also a huge support when his son, Michael, died of suicide in 1985.
“When Michael died, it was just shortly after there was a very large controversy about what I had written,” he said. “But they stood with us.”
Imagination amid change
Although the mainstream writing world is a quite secular place, Wiebe is happy to call himself a Christian writer.
“That means I’m a believer and a follower of Jesus Christ. I try to look at the world in the way Jesus tried to teach us,” he said.
His understanding of his faith also changed over the decades.
“We live as Christians in a world that keeps changing,” he said. “You just can’t go plodding along thinking I know what’s right and what we’ve been taught for the last 500 years or something like that is the only right thing.
“The world changes, and you need an imagination to understand that. You can’t just say that certain practices today are out the window because they didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. This is where imagination and spiritual discernment are important.”
Being open about his faith has ever hurt him as a writer.
“People kept publishing my books,” he said.
Peace Shall Destroy Many has never gone out of print and is still taught in high schools.
“There was never any question about what my approach to the story was, and they didn’t object to my philosophy in life,” he said. “Nobody objected to me [about my faith] in terms of the publishing world.”
Words that stung
Looking back, Wiebe knows how much pain his first book caused.
“It was profoundly disturbing to many leaders in the church and also many others,” he said.
While understanding how they felt, he also reminds that it was his first book.
“You’re trying all kinds of things, and you don’t have a good sense of your readership,” he said. “Of course you make mistakes. There are problems in that first novel; I know that better than just about anybody. But at the same time, there are some interesting dynamics too.”
One of those mistakes led to the problems he experienced with his denomination.
Although the book is fiction, many readers believed Wiebe was writing about a real Mennonite community and church.
He wasn’t, but Wiebe admits he made “a strategic error” when he wrote that members of the fictitious church “came up from the creek from the baptism.”
“That immediately made people think I was writing about the Mennonite Brethren, since they practiced immersion,” he said. “For them it was clear evidence.”
In fact, Wiebe said he likes “that image [immersion] better, since Jesus was also baptized in a stream.” But he now realizes “I should have kept it out. That would have taken a bit of the sting out of it for some people who thought it was about them.”
As for the award from CMU, he muses on its name.
“The award is called PAX — peace,” he said, noting that when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published “it destroyed peace for many.” But because of it, “I have never been able to stop writing, not for the rest of my life.”
Wiebe and Toews write differently about Mennonites
If Rudy Wiebe is the father of Mennonite writing in Canada, the best-known Canadian Mennonite writer today is Miriam Toews.
That was all but confirmed last month when Toews was profiled by The New Yorker in an article titled “A Beloved Canadian Novelist Reckons with Her Mennonite Past.”
The subtitle was: “How Miriam Toews left the church and freed her voice.”
Her new novel, Women Talking, has brought a flurry of media attention, including profiles and reviews in Time, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The novel (reviewed in the April 1 MWR) is based on real events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, where more than 100 women were drugged and raped by men from their own community over a period of four years more than a decade ago.
As New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz put it, “her fiction has often dealt with the religious hypocrisy and patriarchal dominion that she feels to be part of her heritage, and with a painful emotional legacy, harder to name but as present as a watermark.”
Like with Wiebe, Toews’ first novel, A Complicated Kindness, provoked angry reactions among some Canadian Mennonites.
In response, she told The New Yorker, “it’s not a critique of the Mennonite faith or of Mennonite people but of fundamentalism, of that culture of control.”
Wiebe took on similar themes, and received similar backlash. Unlike Toews, however, he never left his faith or lost his appreciation for the Mennonite church.
‘I don’t write that way’
While praising Toews, whom he considers a friend, he said “the kinds of things she writes about Mennonites, I don’t write that way about them.”
He regrets her view has come to be seen by many as representing what all Mennonites in Canada are like, “as if there is only one sort of Mennonite world. That’s a problem for me.”
At the same time, he defends her right to speak critically of her experience of the Mennonite church, something she wrote about in Granta in 2016.
In the article, she recalled a speaking tour she did with Wiebe in Germany in 2008. At one presentation, in Detmold, an angry Mennonite woman confronted Toews.
Toews remembers her saying A Complicated Kindness was “filthy and that my characters’ mockery of Menno Simons, the man who started the Mennonites in Holland 500 years ago, was sacrilegious and sinful.”
Wiebe came to her defense. “What I’ll remember is that on that day Rudy Wiebe stood up in front of a Mennonite ‘congregation’ and fought for me,” she wrote. “Rudy had defended me. . . . He said that the reaction to my book had reminded him of the Mennonite reaction to his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many.
“He told the people in the room that however they might feel about the swearing in the book, it was at least an honest book, and that the conversations it had generated were important ones and that it, in its way, was advocating for necessary change within our culture; it was holding us accountable as Mennonites to our humanity, our humanness; it was asking us to be self-critical, to accept reality and to love better.”
Wiebe remembers it well.
“The woman said I would not allow my 16-year-old daughter to read that book,” he recalled. I said if she didn’t want her children to read it, that’s her right to say that. But she couldn’t say that to anybody else.”
Like Toews wrote in Granta, Wiebe remembers the woman was not satisfied by his explanation, angrily storming out of the room.