Book 6, The Blue Mountains of China (1970) – Rudy Wiebe
From the back cover:
“An epic novel that sweeps across a vast expanse of time and space, The Blue Mountains of China tells the unforgettable story of a group of Russian Mennonites in search of a land that would give them religious freedom. Alive with the excitement of a journey that began in the opressive poverty of a Russian village and ended on the Canadian prairie, this is the story of an unforgettable group of men and women–all determined, above all else, to triumph in their quest. More than a saga of generations, The Blue Mountains of China is a stirring testament to the enduring human spirit.”
This book is a little more difficult than books selected so far. Difficult in two senses. This is, in a way, a collection of short stories or episodes depicting the lives of (often related) Mennonites, beginning around the time when the Soviet government was appropiating and redistributing the land in and around 1929. The novel’s timeline ends around the time the book was published in 1970. It is difficult to read about what these people go through as they hide and flee–some to Canada, some to Paraguay, some to China. Not only do they have to cope with the “police” and officials, but with poverty, starvation, disease, the weather, the barreness of the land (especially in Paraguay)–always trying to keep their hope and their faith. At the same time, it is difficult to read because of the author’s style. The reader is dropped into these episodes without any prelude so there is usually a sense of confusion trying to figure out who the characters are, when & where they are, and what’s taking place. This is made even more difficult by the often disjointed sometimes stream of consciousness writing style. Sometimes I finish a chapter and am not sure exactly what happened.
However, despite my confusion as to particulars, the flavour and the theme of the novel are very clear. I think that though this portrays a specific group of people fleeing during a particular period of history, in fact it is more universal than one would first imagine. I think almost everyone has had ancestors (or even closer relatives) who have been refugees, immigrants, persecuted minorities, political prisoners, searchers for some place to call home where they can live in peace. So this novel relates what it must have been like for all of those people.
I really enjoyed the final 2 chapters (I just wanted to read a bit over my lunch break and ended up reading 40pp.–I had to tear myself away to get back to work). The penultimate chapter is the story of Samuel Reimer, the son of one of the refugees (he was an infant when they left Russia). He now (c.1966) lives in Manitoba with his wife & family and they’ve kind of become secularized–they still go to church, but it’s more of a tradition than belief. He doesn’t pay attention in church or read the Bible. Then one night, he hears the Voice of God telling him to go and proclaim peace in Vietnam. Eventually he decides to do just that, but his family, community etc. all think he’s crazy.
The last chapter was very good. All the strands of earlier chapters came together into a cohesive whole. Excellent book, despite the intermittent confusion. The afterword written by Eva-Marie Kröller was insightful, placing this book in the context of Canada in 1970 when the book was published (during the FLQ crisis and 3 yrs after the centennial of Confederation).
From the introduction of the copy from 1989, written by W.J. Keith:
After my own first reading of the novel, I was left, I remember, with a phantasmagoria of dimly-recognized, shadowy figures always in movement–alone on the march, alone on the run, but together on an endless epic journey across the spaces of the earth. But I also remember an experience of almost breath-taking power, a realization that here was a novelist with a breadth of vision, seriousness of purpose and (above all) a dazzling artistry that I had met with elsewhere only in novelists whose names are household words wherever great literature is read. With each re-reading, the shadows have receded, the outlines have become clearer, but my admiration and appreciation have steadily grown. Now whenever I am asked to name the Canadian novels that I consider worthy to stand with the best from other countries and cultures, The Blue Mountains of China (along with Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano) is invariably the first to spring to mind.