Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Other Side of the River by Janice L. Dick: a review

As a Mennonite child growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada, and attending a country Mennonite Church, I heard many stories about Mennonites' experiences in Russia. One ancestor of a local Mennonite family was thrown into a well because Communist officials considered him too wealthy. A Mennonite relative of mine was imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Another, a woman, was threatened with rape by Russian soldiers, but distracted them from their evil intentions by singing and playing her guitar.

With stories like these lurking in my mind, I'm always interested in novels about the Russian Mennonite experience. One is The Blue Mountains of China by Rudy Wiebe. Another is The Russländer (also titled Katya) by Sandra Birdsell. Janice L. Dick's new novel, Other Side of the River, stacks up well in comparison with these. In some respects, Dick's story is The Russländer on steroids.

Janice L. Dick lives in Watrous, Saskatchewan.
As the novel opens, it's 1926 in the Siberian village of Alexandrovka. The first page introduces us to the two main characters, Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens. They're devout young Mennonites hoping to marry and live a peaceful life in their close-knit Mennonite community. Also on that first page, we meet the arch enemy of their hopes and dreams. He's Senior-Major Leonid Dubrowsky of the GPU, the dreaded Soviet secret police.

Dubrowsky isn't fond of Mennonites. He finds them too pious, successful, and independent-minded. As the story progresses, Dubrowsky's shows himself to be especially opposed to Daniel and his father, who dare to criticize him and the totalitarian regime he represents. The day after Luise and Daniel's wedding, the bridegroom's father, Peter Martens, dies as a result of complaints against the regime. Daniel, hot-headed like his father, condemns the circumstances that led to Peter's passing. The young man is immediately shipped off to a work camp in the far north.

Back home in Alexandrovka, his wife of two days, Luise, faces a gut-wrenching decision. Her family plan to move east, about as far east in Russia as possible. They want to settle in a Mennonite village near the Amur River, which forms the border between Russia and China in that area. Luise's parents and other Mennonites believe that the GPU would bother them less in such a remote location. Luise thinks this may be true, but agonizes over whether to accompany her family or not. What if Daniel returns to look for her in Alexandrovka? How will he know where she's gone? Will he be able to join her in the east with travel so dangerous, especially for a declared enemy of the state?

Luise's life is further complicated by her prickly relationship with her stepmother. Anna, the stepmother, is a complex character. She treats Luise harshly because she's jealous of the young woman's rapport with her father, i.e. Anna's husband. Sometimes Anna also shows symptoms of a mind dangerously unhinged from reality. On the other hand, she seems able to foretell the future. "God tells me things," she says.

Anna utters a prophecy about Luise and Daniel's future, but the author keeps us wondering whether and how it will be fulfilled. Their lives unfold through danger, desperation, drudgery, and moments of delight, all illuminated by the faith that burns in them, however dimly at times.

Occasionally I found the story somewhat unbelievable. For instance, I'm not sure Daniel would keep speaking against the regime and getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble. At the same time, I admire his courage.

The author sometimes uses him to comment on the political system of the time. For example, at one point Daniel tells Dubrowsky: "I have a mind and ideas that could help you and your cause, but instead you try to ruin me and others like me with preposterous laws that stifle any independent spark. It is independence and individual motivation that foster success, not repression."

The narrative includes enough touches of dialect to add flavour, but not so many that they hinder the reading. For example, at one point a woman says, "I am just pulling out from the oven some perishky" (Mennonite-style fruit or meat turnovers). On another occasion young people play knipsbraat (crokinole). Such references sound wonderfully homey to me; I grew up with them.

I would love to have written a novel like Other Side of the River, but Dick beat me to it. You can read the first chapter at Her 370-page novel, published by Helping Hands Press, sells for about $15.00 and is available from Amazon as a paperback. You can find it by pasting the following link into your browser:  The e-book, which sells for about $7.50, is also available from Amazon. The link is

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