Catch of the Day
Mennonites Don’t Dance is a finely-crafted collection of short stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack. Set in and around Swift Current (and Calgary) they are universal in that they deal with the expectations and hopes and disappointments and unkindnesses we’ve all experienced.
The stories are original and deep. Friesen Hossack can spin a fantastic yarn. What lifts her stories up and makes them so memorable are the characters and the rural and urban settings.
Mennonites Don’t Dance paints a vibrant, sweeping landscape of life on the prairies. Friesen Hossack has captured that déjà vu feeling that East Coast writers like Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey can evoke so well in their own books– I’ve been here before. The stories in this book, whether set in the past or present day, open a door to small-town Saskatchewan. Contrary to the wide-open-watch-your-dog-run-away-for-days stereotype of the prairies, Friesen Hossack captures very stiflingness of the place: the heat, the invisible fences and the ties that bind – to the land, to family. Never-ending cycles of seasons and planting and harvest. The constant wind. The fierce storms. That’s the Saskatchewan I know.
The characters that move through the pages of Mennonites Don’t Dance are unforgettable. Sometimes they are depicted in spare, broad-stroke lettering, and at other times in great cursive loops, embellished beautifully. The children stay with you. Wide-eyed and open-eared, they are the conduit through which many of the stories are told. But the loss of innocence, a recurring theme throughout this book, is not limited only to the very young.
Here, I think of my grandma. I recognize her father in Joseph, the absentee father in Poor Nella Pea. I see my grandfather in Jonah, the little boy who tries to find his place in the world in the haunting story Luna. And in the title story, there is Lizbeth, a young girl, breathless in the spin of a forbidden dance with a boy she likes. There, I find my grandma. Though my grandma never experienced the terrible tragedy Lizbeth faced, here is where the universality of the stories shines. Everyone has a tragedy. They just don’t speak of it. It’s a way of being enmeshed with life on the prairies.
Ashes is by far my favourite story. I was hooked by the lines:
“Tomatoes make Anke nervous. The way they become vulnerable to frost at the first hint of ripening.Their shameless read and soft flesh that yields to the slightest pressure, their gel-enveloped seeds.”
Those two lines to me, represent the whole story. You know something’s coming.
Yes, it is a story of the careful dance of a mother in law who must cope with a daughter-in-law who moves in and brings change to the “old ways.” But it is much, much more than that. This story will seep into the cracks of your being and you won’t be able to scrub the images clean.
Mental illness, a subject so taboo in society today, is forced into the open in more than one of these stories. Friesen Hossack is able to keep a delicate balance between a writerly respect and showing how people who suffer from depression and mental illness were and are treated with the very opposite of respect.
And the food. Let it be known – there is food. Lots of it. Homegrown food, the staples. Unpronounceable food. Food planted, grown and harvested by hand.
Mennonites Don’t Dance is Saskatchewan. From imagery you can almost touch to the stoic, soft-hearted characters, this book is will take you home, whether you’re Mennonite, or not. Whether you’re from the prairies, or not.