Category Archives: Mennonites

Pinching Zwieback: A review



I know I am biased but my good friend Mitch Toews has written a very good novel. Or is it a very good collection of stories trying to be a novel?  It doesn’t matter. All you have to know is that to read it truly worth the trip.


I first got to know Mitch when we were both on a senior men’s basketball team. I was the mascot. Oddly, two members of that team have become writers.  The other is well-known Dave Bergen. Mitch may soon be just as well known. Sadly, both Mitch and Dave were much better basketball players than I was and also excellent writers. Some guys get all the breaks. Sometimes life is not fair.


Once a week through the thick and thin of winter the team drove to Winnipeg, though some like Dave Bergen lived in Winnipeg so did not have the benefit of participating in those wonderful road trips. On the way back home after a couple of “short ones” from the Nicolett Bar with itsMega Parties” attended by about 3 or 4 customers in addition to our team, I remember Mitch would often regale us with stories.  Sitting in the car with our sweaty socks and smells of stale beer, Mitch would sometimes tell long stories that were told with minute details that gave them the luster of truth, even though they were obviously filled with outrageous lies. Trump-sized lies!  At best they had a whiff of the truth. I knew then, right away, that he was a wordsmith and should write. After all, lies are what fiction is all about. And Mitch was a master liar.

Now Mitch has proved I was right about that with his magnificent book Pinching Zwieback: Made up Stories from the Darp.“ [“Darp” is a small town.]

We have to forgive Mitch for his appropriation of Mennonite culture. He uses a sprinkling of Low-German words to give the book the tang of Mennonite, but he provides a set of definitions so even those unfamiliar with this glorious language will understand the word in the books.  But that is all right, he is allowed to appropriate from his own culture, even if he is an outlier. Or out liar?


I really liked the stories about Died Rich (Diedrich) Deutsch who was obviously modelled after another member of our team mates. Died Rich is befriended by Dr. Rempel who discovers “an infinity-sized loophole” from hell. Lucky guy. He is free to do what he wants. So he tries to start a new religion with Died Rich as his first convert.



  1. My favourite story though is “Without Spot or Wrinkle” in which 2 characters are clearly fictionalized versions of my great uncle Peter and Tante Suzie.  Matt’s father Hart owns a bakery and goes to the Credit Union for a loan. After all the business has one of the “ freshly printed chequebooks that makes money appear as if by magic—or possibly as some claim—in response to prayer.”  Hart notices the desk for the loans officers is “rectilinear and oppressively neat” telling us a lot about the community in which it is located.  As well, there is a plaque “that smells like money” where “A framed dollar bill looks down from the wall like a coat-of-arms.” It is a place with a stern “ Elizabeth Regina overseeing all.” In that image you know all you need to know about this institution. This is a place that only those who are not faint of heart should enter. It reminds me of the line by Bob Dylan, “Jack the Ripper sits at the head of the Chamber of Commerce selling road maps of the soul.”


When Hart admits to the account manager  he doesn’t attend church he knows his chance of getting the loan are sunk. When “Elizabeth Regina looks down, a savage smile on her green lips,” you know that smile is for Hart and he knows all he needs to know. When the account manager “closes the ledger with a soft thud…the neat rows of numbers seem to protest—the zeros calling out in open -mouthed desperation.” To no avail of course.


Fortunately, he finds a much more friendly banker down the street. Mr. Heid, no doubt modelled after kindly old T.G. Smith, ‘with a green-stained baseball” on his desk you which lets you know his chances are much better here. Hart has landed at a kinder, gentler, and smarter lender. Heid fortunately is not one of the so-called Christians. As Matt’s friend Peter Vogel said, “He has a firm hand on the idea of being fair—helping his neighbours no matter who or what he is. Not a church man that Heid, but he acts more like one than some others.”  Vogel has sharp words for the newer lenders like those at the Credit Union that “forget the old ways, those guys with their fine suits.”


I always knew Mitch would be a good writer. I just didn’t know how good. The stories whisper words of wisdom. The best kind of wisdom in a world in which we get too much of the other kind.  All of you should get out and buy this book. Immediately. This guy can write, a heck-of-a-lot better than he ever played basketball.


Ousting Inhabitants




The newcomers to Canada had a different attitude to the land than the indigenous people they met had.

As Doug Williams, elder and former Chief of Kitiga Migisi, saidimn the documentary Spirit to Soar, “I think the early, early settlers had a real difficult time  with what they called the wilderness. Of course, we did not have a wilderness. We had a home.” The newcomers needed the Indigenous people to survive. Doug Williams put it this way in the film Colonization Road:


“When the land grants were starting to happen, they were giving away our old camps, and our shorelines, and our islands, and the river mouths, and all of this. We had to move. In fact, we were being shot at. It’s a history which started with conflict, so we had to move.”


Premier Brian Pallister of Manitoba was wrong. The settlers were not only builders. They built alright, but first they also  pushed out the inhabitants. Sometimes not directly, but through the governments that represented them and did not represent the indigenous people, the indigenous people were ousted. Settlers accepted this. They did not question their privilege. They saw it as natural. They thought they were entitled to this privilege.  That is the way privilege works. It sees anything that undermines that privilege as irrational.

I recently watched a limited television series call The English. It is well worth seeing.  It dealt with the settlement of North America by Europeans.  In it I was struck by a group of Mennonites who had come to Kansas to settle the land. The English woman in the series came up to the Mennonites and challenged them. “What are you doing here,” she asked. “Why are you here? Don’t you know people live here? Why don’t you go home?”  The Mennonites were dumb struck by these perplexing questions.  They seemed to never have thought of this. After all, the reason they were there, they said, was that God had called them to come. How could they possibly question that?  In a sense, the Mennonites were villains of the series [along with a wide assortment of other villains].  I had never before seen Mennonites painted as villains. Is this an unfair portraiture? I wonder what my friends think?

Recently, a friend of mine, told me about a Canadian farmer who is a descendant of settlers. He felt the injustice of this ouster so keenly, that he met with his family and together they decided to give the land back to indigenous people! Just like that after a few generations of farming the land they gave it back while acknowledging the injustice of the original displacement of the indigenous people.  That is an impressive expression of conscience and, I dare say, in this case, true Christian spirit.

That settler demonstrated a new attitude to the land and its inhabitants.


Women Talking


Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s finest writers and she comes from Steinbach, my home town. I read this book after I had already heard a lot of criticism about it. Most of that criticism came from Steinbachers. Some felt that Miriam Toews was not true to Mennonite colonies. They weren’t like that some said. Others didn’t like her approach. The book was largely about women talking with each other. The women had been subjected to horrific abuse by the Mennonite men in the colony and were meeting to discuss what to do about it.


My view is entirely different. I loved this book. To use the approach of Northrop Frye in the book The Educated Imagination, the book is not about abuse in a Mennonite colony. It is much more than that. It is a book about women talking about their own exploitation by men and what, if anything they should do about it. It is a book about rebellion from exploitation. And I don’t think there are many more important things than that. In Aristotle’s sense it is a vital and fundamental universal theme. And I think Toews was very true to that theme. For me, she made it come alive. And that is what great books do. They make it real. Even if it did not really happen. It was still real.


Many things were interesting in that book. The women wanted to have the freedom to think. Again a universal theme of vital significance. Did not every child in every home and in every country want exactly that? We all want to think and must escape from the domination of our family, our church, our clique, or our friends. We all want to break free and that is never easy to do.

I remember years ago I was at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. There was a circus-style show involving a trainer and some chimpanzees. During the show the trainer made a mistake in improperly chaining the chimp to his place on stage. The chimp took one look around and made a burst for freedom. It might have been entirely irrational. What was the chimp going to do in Winnipeg? But that burst for freedom was glorious. The chimp took off and the trainer ran after him. From the stage we saw them a city block away. The show was over. But the bolt for freedom was real and it lasted in my mind forever.

In the novel, the women challenge the patriarchy. Around the world women are doing that. One of the women says, “We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. We are grandmothers.” Yes. But they are rebels! They are talkers. And they are thinkers.

In this novel some of the women talked about making a bolt for freedom. Should they or shouldn’t they? I found it fascinating. I think this is one of Toews’ best novels ever. I think it is a great novel. Read it and think.