A Review of New (Swiss-German) Mennonite Historical Fiction

My Loyalist Origins, by Herb Swartz. Victoria, B. C.: Friesen Press, 2015. 275 pp. Paperback. $15. ISBN: 978-1-4602-7458-3.

Both My Sons, by Ken Yoder Reed. Morgantown, Pa.: Masthof Press, 2016. 412 pp. Paperback. $19.95. ISBN: 978-1-60126-499-2.

Christian’s Hope, by Ervin R. Stutzman. Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press, 2016. 339 pp. (paper). $14.99. ISBN: 978-0-8361-9942-0.

In his excellent monograph on what it means to understand the past, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg relates an experience from his 1996 study of how ordinary people understand themselves in relation to the past. In one interview, he spoke with a father who wanted his daughter to understand the Vietnam War experience. The father did not look to books of history, nor his coworker who fought in the war; instead he suggested, “We’ll have to get a copy of The Green Berets, you know, with John Wayne or something like that, so she’s a little bit more aware of what was going on. I don’t know how accurate all that is, but a least it would bring up some questions” (232). Fiction shapes how we see the past. Three historical fiction novels with the ability to shape how modern Anabaptists see the past were published in 2016: My Loyalist Origins, by Herb Swartz; Both My Sons, by Ken Reed; and Christian’s Hope, by Ervin Stutzman. 

My Loyalist OriginsHerb Swartz’s My Loyalist Origins is an attempt to work through his personal identity through historical fiction. He tells the story of the founding of America, from colonialism through the Revolutionary War, with some forays earlier back in time to discuss the origins of Anabaptism. Structured as a series of dreams with brief intervals of lucidity, Swartz gives a semi-historical account with a sometimes thin ribbon of story tying it all together. The book has six sections covering the discovery of America; the origins of Pennsylvania and Anabaptism; early wars, both colonial and the Revolution; the creation of the United States government; loyalist emigration to Canada, focusing on the Mennonite experience; and the settlement of Ebytown, now Kitchener, Ontario.

Swartz’s approach to understanding his personal origins in a very broad context is interesting, and he does attempt to create an approachable past throughout the book. He clearly understands that people operate in a broader milieu, and that understanding the world around them is key to gaining insight into how they understand themselves. So committed is he to helping readers understand the political environments of those colonial Americans that he includes the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and a list of failed amendments as appendices to his book.

However, the narrative framework—a secret-agent style television producer pays Swartz-as-narrator to research his origins as background for a “rest of the story” television show, a process that inspires a feverish series of dreams he has that show him the way back—are less compelling and require great suspension of disbelief. Swartz seems to be writing more for himself, and allowing us to accompany him on his journey to see what we might learn from it. There is value in this, but it is not presented neatly. It must be found.

Unfortunately, My Loyalist Origins falls apart with a flurry of small errors, some of which I will cover, often in short, offhand comments. Puerto Rico is not the island of Hispaniola, as he mentions on page 20; Hispaniola is modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He also gives a classic monogenesis of Anabaptism in Chapter 10, as opposed to the more accurate polygenesis account. He dreams of a Quaker member of parliament in 1739 objecting to the War of Jenkins Ear (79-80), but Friends were not allowed to serve in the British Parliament until the 1798 Act of Toleration allowed them to take seats without swearing oaths. Longbows were not invented by the Scottish and during the wars of Scottish independence (114) led by Robert the Bruce—longbows are generally considered to be Welsh, and were in use centuries earlier. Swartz could have used a better fact checker. None are major errors, but as they pile on, they cloud the truth that Swartz does include.

Both My Sons Front Cover, 6.9.16Both My Sons, by Ken Reed, is a story of leaving and belonging, reconciliation and redemption, capturing in broad strokes the experiences of early immigrants to what is now Lancaster County. Reed tells the story through Klaus Greenywalt, a composite of early immigrants. The story centers around Greenywalt’s relationship to his two sons, one of which is legitimate, and their mothers—one being his European Mennonite wife, the other his Scots-Irish mistress (taken while he thought his wife had died in Europe). We are carried along as Greenywalt converts in Europe while working for a Mennonite miller after the murder of his father, purchases land in the original Pequea settlement, is involved with colonial administration, helps foster further Mennonite immigration, loses his eldest son, and dies during the middle of the French and Indian war, all the while trying to maintain relationships with his children and peace between their mothers.

Reed does engage in interesting use of perspective in Both My Sons, with two middle sections being told from the perspectives of “the indentured girl,” Janey, with whom he has an affair, and “the wife.” This helps provide fuller insight into the colonial experience—not just the perspective of a white male Mennonite settler.

Where Both My Sons runs into trouble is the nature of truth when history and fiction collide, a problem exacerbated by his characterization through historical composite. There is one notable absence in the Pequea Settlement as portrayed by Reed: Martin Kendig. Greenywalt is clearly modeled heavily from Kendig: a major land dealer, returning to Europe to recruit immigrants, and even occupying the same tracts of land on the representation of the Pequea settlement. Kendig was, however, not an adulterer, and so did not share the engaging conflict that makes Greenywalt such a compelling character. When doing history, it is important to treat those who lived in the past with respect, and eliminating Kendig without comment is not treating his subject with due deference. Reed is writing fiction, and as such has great liberty to shape his story; perhaps that he does not let historical accuracy impede a good story is a testament to his imagination. But because he is writing historical fiction instead of creating a story from scratch, he is responsible for the past he presents.

Reed makes an attempt to address this in his disclaimer, “But is it true?.” He answers, “the central character, Greenywalt, is an invention of the author. . . . The scenes and conversations of his life are imaginary. However, the main events and people in Greenywalt’s world are real” (xi). This slipperiness between history and fiction, as best indicated by the curious case of Martin Kendig, while allowing for an enjoyable story, limits its historical usefulness in appreciating the lives of those who have gone before.

Christian's-Hope-Final-medium-webChristian’s Hope, like Both My Sons, is a novel of colonial Pennsylvania set just after the French and Indian War. The third and final installment in the Return To Northkill series picks up the story of Christian Hochstetler, the youngest son of Jacob Hochstetler. Christian, having lived with the Shawnee for eight years following his capture during the “Hochstetler Massacre,” is forced to return to his father and colonial Pennsylvania society due to the terms of the treaty ending the French and Indian War. Back on the farm, he struggles to reintegrate with his birth family and farm life, bound by a vow to remain true to the native way of life. He finds peace through an enticing relationship with Orpha Rupp and her Dunkard community.

Stutzman’s prose is clear and engaging, keeping the story moving at a steady clip. Though it is part of a series, it is not necessary to have read the prior novels, Jacob’s Choice and Joseph’s Dilemma, to appreciate Christian’s Hope. The details are filled in through a prologue and some flashbacks.

In contrast to Both My Sons, Christian’s Hope sets up an excellent author-reader contract. Stutzman is clear where he has taken liberties and what we do not know. In the preface before the novel, and the historical note after, Stutzman gives helpful historical context, clearly states what he changed for clarity, and admits what cannot be known.

As I was working on this review, I discussed it with a scholar friend of mine. He said, “I don’t have the time to read that sort of stuff, but I suppose somebody has to.” The issue of time is a real one, but he is missing out on some of the most important works on Mennonite history to come out in 2016 on two counts. First, fiction allows us to enter the past in a more intimate way, such as when we follow Greenywalt on the long road to his son’s funeral or enter the conviction of Christian’s conversion. Secondly, history is made of the stories we tell ourselves. This is the only way we understand the past, and on that account these works are important because stories of the past are being told, and being told in an accessible way. The importance of historical fiction, despite any errors individual works have, is that it gives us an accessible past that we can use. As the father muses in his interview with Wineberg, “at least it would bring up some questions.” Each of these books is worth picking up.

A condensed version of this review first appeared in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 40:1 (January 2017)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s