Linda Maendel is the first Hutterite to write and illustrate a children’s book. She blogs, writes news articles and teaches school. Hutterite Diaries is one of the Plainspoken series — insider stories by members of more conservative Anabaptist groups to give a clearer picture of groups whose life is often misconstrued. Hutterite colonies are scattered over the western provinces of Canada and several prairie states.
Readers expecting intimate “Dear diary” revelations of Hutterite life won’t find them here. Nor does the book include diaries of other writers, as the title led me to expect. It is primarily a group of well-written, gentle essays by Maendel about her daily life, childhood recollections and excerpts from published articles — a bold venture for a Hutterite woman.
Maendel, a member of the Elm River Hutterite Colony outside Winnipeg, Man., summarizes Hutterite life in a few phrases: all things common, with everyone working and worshiping together. She finds joy in this way of life, rare in today’s individualistic society.
Hutterites set great value on communal living as the best means to pass on faith, values, a work ethic, culture and heritage. They see it as a counterbalance to the individualism and consumerism dominant in mainstream society: “With our rich history, unique language and community-of-goods lifestyle, we’re a distinctive addition and are contributing to the whole.”
They live as families within the colonies, raising children, working and eating together. Learning about communal living begins early. At 2 and a half years, each child joins other children to begin the process of learning to share and cooperate. At age 5, the child graduates to the children’s dining room, apart from parents. At age 15, children are considered adults, eat with other adults and join the community workforce. When a couple gets married, their home and furnishings are provided by the colony.
Children are expected to learn three languages: Hutterisch, used in everyday speech but not a written language; German, the church language; and English. Preschool education, taught by Hutterites, is followed by attendance at Canadian provincial schools, as required by law. A few go on to high school and college.
Outsiders always wonder how money is handled. Hutterites “share the big things, own the small,” Maendel explains. They have no personal bank accounts yet share laundry facilities, vehicles and kitchen equipment. They are given spending money for personal needs and some opportunity to travel. For example, before Christmas, a group of mothers goes shopping by bus to a nearby city for three days to prepare for the holidays. She took advantage of a church history study tour in Europe.
Children are encouraged at each life stage to dedicate their lives to one another through work, mutual assistance and group worship. Hutterites relish being together, Maendel writes. Though life in the colony is something each member is born into, not a choice, when someone leaves to join another church or forsake the life of faith, that decision brings sadness.
Few outsiders join the Hutterites and find satisfaction in living communally, she admits. The need to be independent is too great. Learning to speak Hutterisch as an adult is also a difficult barrier. (For a sensitive, respectful account of one man’s seven-year sojourn with his family in a Minnesota colony, read Robert Rhodes’ Nightwatch: Alone on the Prairie with the Hutterites.)
Although considered plain people, Maendel defines “plain” as modest in dress and simple in approach to life. Hutterites’ unique dress gives them “a sense of belonging.” The Schmiedeleut colony, of which she is a member, is the most progressive of three main groups, each with its own variation of the distinctive dress code.
“Plain” also does not mean without modern conveniences. Hutterites drive modern vehicles and farm with the best machinery. Kitchens, barns and shops use state-of-the art equipment. A public-address system reaches into each household to make members aware of communal activities.
While enjoying the benefits of modern technology, Hutterites are sensitive to the need to moderate its use, especially by their young people, who enjoy video games and the Internet. Maendel quotes a minister of another colony: “We’ve survived hundreds of years of severe persecution, but I don’t think we’ll survive this.” I wish she had said more about this and about the decision-making process, restricted to baptized men.
Maendel shows readily that her people are not closed to other ethnic groups or to helping others. She describes her experience with prison visitation and how, during World War II, pacifist Hutterites and German prisoners-of-war worked and sang together. Other activities that take them out of the colony include providing lap quilts and crafts for charitable organizations.
She presents a brief history of the Hutterites, including information about one family line enslaved by the Turks in Moravia for a time.
Maendel answers frequently asked questions about this group, sometimes confused with the Amish. This loving look at the author’s people does not go into depth about Hutterite beliefs, although she hints at these. It is a good introduction to Hutterite life.
Katie Funk Wiebe, a Wichita, Kan., author, blogs at kfwiebe.blogspot.com.