Charlee LeBeau & The Gambler’s Promise
by C.V. Gauthier (Friesen Press)
Review by Darcie Friesen Hossack
A music teacher once said, “Begin well and end well, or nothing you do in the middle will matter very much.”
Although it’s a lesson from grade school, it’s one that still applies, and C.V. Gauthier knows how to begin a story.
“The night I turned fourteen,” she writes, “I couldn’t sleep on account of it being so blinking hot. The cabin rafters had collected a week’s worth of summer heat, and my bed was wedged in a narrow loft right beneath them.”
From there, I mostly set down my reviewer’s pencil and just settled in to read.
In fact, it wasn’t until halfway through that I thought to note this novel as belonging in a Young Adult library. It truly needn’t be that limited.
Rather, I suggest that this be read, and then discussed, by whole families, not only for its evocation of time, place and character, but for the themes it fleshes out so well: the strength of girls, the insane, nonsensical cruelty of racism, the human costs of greed; and the redemptive power of friendship.
Historical fiction has often done very well in this competition, even up against literary competitors.
There’s a reason for that.
According to Marthese Fenech, the best-selling author of Maltese historical fiction, “The human condition is timeless. Themes are not specific to the genre.”
Charlee LeBeau and the Gambler’s Promise, from its beginning, through its middle and end, is another example of that particular truth. This reader looks forward to books 2 and 3 to complete what is already a memorable start to this series.
All the Beautiful Liars
by Sylvia Petter (Lightning Books)
Review by Darcie Friesen Hossack
Sylvia Petter’s All the Beautiful Liars is exquisite. From beginning to end, for both its artistry and intrigue, I read in the tension of wanting to underline something on every page, while wishing to hide that function on my Reader. I met myself somewhere in the middle with lines like:
‘I want to see how real people live,’ I said to my godfather.
The man flicked ash from his black cigarette. ‘We are the real people, Carl. We are the ones who can do things. That is why we are here. Never forget that.’
There are others, of course. Many others. Most striking, however, might be this simple phrase:
‘Why do you care?’
This is asked of Katrina Klain, a young woman who seeks truths of her family’s activities and allegiances in Europe during the Second World War. In doing so, she may not find anything to like. In doing so, she may put herself in danger.
‘Why do you care?’
Why DO you care?
Why do we read?
Why do we, the readers, seek truth, even in fiction?
This question for Katrina (and this is only my opinion) is asked of the reader, as well—never with a heavy hand. Just by asking the question of this protagonist, and thereby pulling a thread in each of our thoughts. Answer it, and much that is comfortable now may be in danger. Much, also, may be learned.
Liars is being released in hard copy in 2021, at which time I intend to purchase it again. Whether you buy it once, or buy it twice, though, it only matters that this book is widely read.
All That Belongs
by Dora Dueck
Review by Erin Unger
All That Belongs follows Catherine, born to a Russlander-Mennonite farming family on the Canadian Prairies. She’s spent her career as an archivist, saving and interpreting the stories of others, while resolutely ignoring her own family’s past. However, upon her retirement, a genuine curiosity takes root. She begins unearthing memories suppressed long ago, facing family history with eyes open wide.
As she begins seeking suppressed stories, Catherine encounters resistance and revelation. She leans into the delicious expectation of discovery, contrasted with the spectre of shame and horror, fully embracing all that belongs to her. Determined to be completely present in all of what she encounters… or, whatever remains, that is still accessible to her all these years later.
All That Belongs is honest, unflinching. A fascinating, searing, exquisite novel.
Sunflowers Under Fire
by Diana Stevan (Island House Publishing)
Review by Darcie Friesen Hossack
In Sunflowers under Fire, with prose both as lean and nourishing as cabbage soup and rye bread, Diana Stevan re-creates an entire country and history around the character of Lukia Mazurets.
It’s 1915 when Lukia gives birth to her eighth child in her own Ukrainian kitchen. At the same time, her husband joins the Tzar’s army. War is scouring its way towards them, and soon drives Lukia away from the home and farm they built with their own hands.
Over the family’s next years spent as refugees, however, Lukia is the eye of the storm.
WW1 ends and a civil war replaces it. Bolsheviks, Polish occupation, outbreaks of disease, crushing loss of life and never enough farmland to grow into a hoped-for future, are the characters’ adversaries. Nevertheless, for those who remain, Lukia is determined, resourceful, and the kind of woman who inspires the writing of books.
Based on true events lived by the author’s grandmother, Sunflowers under Fire is also a loving tribute. And given that Diana Stevan was a family therapist in a former life, she also writes with the depth of someone who’s spent time working deep in the trenches of the human experience.
Dad, God, and Me
by Ralph Friesen (Friesen Press)
Review by Mitchell Toews
The author’s humility, humour, candour, and humanity are on full display in this rich memoir piece from Ralph Friesen. I was transported to the tiny Steinbach of my childhood and the many fond memories I hold dear. Ralph also, without malice it seemed to me, gave us some inkling of the challenges he faced. Challenges not singular to the author, I’d add. His siblings, cousins, friends and their shared experiences, the remarkable characters who populated the stubborn little town and in particular, the author’s parents are fondly remembered and thoughtfully described. As advertised, God makes several appearances but like the considerate headliner He is, does not steal the show.
My favourite moment — a perfect example of the foundations upon which the book is built — comes when the family is gathered together, “eating Platz and criticizing the Catholics…”, a line that is at once sweet, funny and a precise description of the place, the time, and the people.
Peculiar Lessons: How Nature and the Material World Shaped a Prairie Childhood
By Lois Braun (Great Plains Publications)–memoir, social history
Review by Eleanor Chornoboy
…the book is brilliant. It sparkles with poetry, stories from the heart, wise observations and complete honesty without judgment. I found the stories took me from the micro to the macro to the personal and back to the micro again with complete ease. I loved how the writer embedded the work and words of local artists, treated the reader to careful research…effortlessly, and told her own stories like we might have been sharing memories over a cup of coffee.…The most intelligent and loving book I have read in a long time.
Andrew Unger (Turnstone Press)
Review by Jeremy Robinson
With a humorous and folksy style, Once Removed is a fond look at the foibles of small town life. Timothy Heppner is a struggling ghostwriter whose experience is set in a fictionalized Mennonite town in southern Manitoba. As he struggles with a feeling of helplessness and his own lack of self-confidence, he also grapples with sinister local politicians led by Mayor BLT Wiens – convenient villains who seem to be responsible for all of the town’s ills. However, the politicians’ very cartoonishness serves to indicate that they are merely representatives of a more widespread, much more insidious evil. As Timothy Heppner soon learns, even while we intend to do good and try to live well, we are forced into economic and moral compromises. Can tradition and progress coexist? Is remembering the past still worthwhile as we move towards a hopeful future? What should we preserve? What should we change? Is our economic necessity an excuse for our complicity in a corrupt and self-destructive system? Questions such as these are not easy to answer. And yet, Unger’s light-hearted approach is hopeful and life affirming. The gentle humour of the novel reassures the reader that things can come out right. As Timothy Heppner grows and develops throughout the novel – a bildungsroman of sorts – the reader, too, is challenged to move towards constructive personal action. This is not heavy handed advice, but rather kindly forgiving of Timothy’s (and our) frequent failures. And, underneath it all, the comedic elements of the novel also serve as an act of defiance, mocking and resisting the dominant narratives of progress, and encouraging us along our way.
by Cameron Dueck (Biblioasis)
Review by JW Goossen
Riding a motorcycle for fun is always a spiritual exercise. Even with friends, you are alone with the elements and your thoughts. In the case of Cameron Dueck’s ride, he also had a purpose. Not to find his roots but to explore unknown branches on the larger family tree in search of identity. Menno Moto is a series of snapshots of the Mennonite Diaspora that moved from the Netherlands through Russia to the Americas. Each picture has its own story and their discovery, helps Cameron clarify the one in which he poses. The characters encountered, the landscapes seen and the connections made, make this book an enjoyable read and a vicarious way to experience Mennonite outcroppings in places we might not get to ourselves.
Sketches from Siberia
by Werner Toews, Anna Sudermann (Friesen Press)
Review by Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein
Sketches from Siberia will quickly find a high rating among new books about Russian Mennonites coming off the press. As a biography utilizing original source material, it is genuinely informative and its very fine painting reproductions and meaningful narrative make its presentation unique and truly exciting.
Many publications on Russian Mennonites do, indeed, already exist. But Sketches from Siberia and other life stories about not only surviving but doing creative work under very difficult circumstances in the former Soviet Union will give that body of literature even more variety, more precise nuances and evidence a higher quality that it can claim so far.
Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein is a long-time historian-archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives in Winnipeg and board member of the Mennonite Heritage Village museum at Steinbach, Manitoba. He is also the author of: Peace and War. Mennonite Conscientious Objectors in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union before WWII (2016).