Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby

I came across this book because it was reviewed by author Michelle Van Loon on her blog. Michelle is a friend, so I immediately asked to borrow her copy (yes, I'm cheap. Deal with it.)

Communities that distance themselves from the "world" mesmerize me. I love stories of separateness, so I was primed to enjoy this one. I'd heard of the Amish and the Mennonites, of course, but the Hutterites were new to me. I Am Hutterite is told from the perspective of a woman born into a Hutterite community in Canada, whose family leaves the community to make their way in the "English" world when she is ten.

The first half of the story deals with the background of Kirkby's parents and the colonies they belong to, and Kirkby's childhood growing up in a rural colony where all goods are held in common, gender roles and stages of life are carefully defined, and daily tasks and dining are done in a carefully organized communal setting. Ayn Rand's Anthem was on the edge of my mind as I read this account, and I could see how this way of living could have been frustrating for some of the adults. The reason why Kirkby's parents leave the colony are foreshadowed as they are seen struggling with the domination of the colony by one man, who happens to be Kirkby's uncle.

For Kirkby, however, the colony is an idyllic place where food is plentiful, children are given a firm framework of moral guidance but much love, and friends are always on hand to play outside in the sunshine (it never seems to be winter). The account is sprinkled liberally with Hutterisch, the Austrian dialect that is the colonists' first language. For some this could make the book hard to read, although a glossary is provided at the end of the book; I acquired enough German at school to make it interesting rather than offputting.

The family's new life in the "English" world of the 1970s (where there is plenty of winter) occupies the second half of the book, and here the interest comes from the story of a young girl trying to gain acceptance from a world she doesn't understand, hampered by the extreme poverty of a family who have to begin life again in an abandoned farmhouse with almost no possessions. Longing desperately for her Hutterite colony, Kirkby stands on the edges of English society looking in on fashions her parents won't let her adopt, and social rules that often run counter to everything she's been taught.

Kirkby's love of her Hutterite people and their ways is evident throughout this book; although she never returns to the colony, she does not lose contact with her friends and relatives. The dignity, humility, and hard work of her parents is lovingly portrayed.

I realize that Kirkby's rose-colored nostalgia has to be taken into account when assessing I Am Hutterite, but it makes no claims to be an objective account of the Hutterite way of life. Seen as a memoir of a woman's journey from one world to another, it makes fascinating reading. I found it to be quite a page-turner, and felt as if I gained a better understanding of what makes the Hutterites tick. Recommended.


fairyhedgehog said...

I really enjoyed reading this review.

I'm fascinated by communities like this too. I can see how Kirby would have a rose-coloured view of her early life. The second half of the book sounds quite poignant.

Word Lily said...

Thanks for this review; I've been wanting to read this, and you just added more weight to that desire. :)