Rudy Wiebe Essay - Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 14)

Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 14)

Introduction

Wiebe, Rudy 1934–

Wiebe is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, and critic. His devout belief in the Mennonite religion informs all of his work, and serves to illuminate Wiebe's concept of modern man. Although his work has been criticized as overly didactic, Wiebe addresses the complex problems of belief in a direct and forceful manner. (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)

Hildegard E. Tiessen

Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962) and The Blue Mountains of China (1970) function within the Canadian literary context not only as works of Prairie fiction, but also as documents that illuminate Mennonitism, a peculiar religious and ethnic orientation which has impressed itself upon the Prairie landscape for the past 100 years. In each novel the material used is Mennonite, and the thematic framework in which it is cast is a theological one, tempered primarily by the author's own interpretation of Anabaptist teaching…. Wiebe already alludes to what later becomes a major motif in The Blue Mountains of China: "they were a religious nation without a country. They were driven from Switzerland to America, from Holland and northern Germany to Prussia, then Russia, finally to North and South America."…

The story Wiebe tells of the Mennonites in The Blue Mountains of China—although the details make it a mixture of what he would choose to call "layers of fact" and "prisms of fiction"—is a genuine physical and spiritual history of these people [as they fled from Russia in the 1920s]….

Wiebe's first and third novels are contemporary explorations of the Mennonite way of life…. The early Anabaptist fathers had stressed in their teachings a literal application of Jesus's concept of the brotherhood of man. In his fiction Wiebe attempts to demonstrate that the man who would seriously wish to express that principle of brotherhood, and so live at peace with his neighbour, must first find peace within his own soul…. Wiebe's theology, as he provides it in Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Blue Mountains of China, is concerned above all with a definition of this inner peace and with a fictional exploration of some men's discovery of it…. (p. 71)

Apparently somewhat embarrassed by Wiebe's explicitly religious themes, reviewers failed generally to receive [Peace Shall Destroy Many] on its own terms—as a serious attempt to deal aesthetically with a way of life dogmatically sustained by the non-resistant Mennonite prairie settlers—and acknowledged the work simply as a token of a new author's "promise." Numerous influential members of the Mennonite community itself were unable to approach the book from a detached perspective, and so further obscured the merits of the work with heated and prolonged controversy.

Critical consideration of Peace Shall Destroy Many remains confined to the contexts of the early reviews, in which the novel is perceived frequently as being flawed by undue moralizing. Those reviewers who have criticized the novel for what appears to them to be a disproportionate religious vision, and those who have chosen to ignore its religious thrust altogether, have remained oblivious to the presence in the novel of young Hal Wiens, who is, both thematically and structurally, a central figure in the book. Peace Shall Destroy Many is not primarily his story, yet Hal … represents the positive force which is sustained throughout the novel and which finally points toward a renewal of the life of the community….

It is through the character of Hal that Wiebe delicately sustains a positive vision in the novel. Unlike the adults in the community, Hal is not caught in a perpetual self-defeating struggle with his environment…. Wiebe expresses his hope in the possibility of a community of people who, like the simple child, will learn to live at peace with themselves, and others. (p. 72)

[The Blue Mountains of...

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W. J. Keith

Sir Walter Scott employed the historical novel to analyze the process of history; Tolstoy used it to illustrate his own philosophy of history. Rudy Wiebe (and I should state here that I consider him thoroughly capable of sustaining these lofty comparisons) is more interested in using his art to explore the enigmas of history and to recreate the experience of living at a time of historical crisis. All his characters are authentic, and he occupies a territory closer than any of his novelist-predecessors to that of the professional historians. His creative faculty is to be found in the convincing motivations he provides for his protagonists and the artistic balance that he achieves in his selection of available incident….

[The Scorched-Wood People] is Wiebe's first novel to rely upon a single first-person perspective, and the strain sometimes shows. He asks his reader to accept an unusual authorial convention; an effort of both imagination and sympathy is necessary. But if the reader is prepared to make this effort, the rewards are considerable.

The Scorched-Wood People is best approached as a series of imaginative tableaux. It lacks the gradual development to which we are accustomed in a traditional novel. Each section relates to the next not by any necessary plot-connection, but because it adds yet another facet to the ultimate understanding of Riel's life…. The spirit rather than the letter of history is presented…. Until now, he has avoided presenting the act of love, but his unforgettable portrayal of a sexual encounter between Riel and Marguerite is evidence of the astonishing emotional range that he can now encompass….

Pierre Falcon, the tough, ribald yet devout Métis poet, blends with Rudy Wiebe, the most visionary of our novelists, to recreate Riel's crusade which, we are told, "became more religious than political." And the power of their combined vision transcends what the unimaginative might consider the limitations of a historical reconstruction….

The Scorched-Wood People may not even be a novel in the strictest sense, but it is magnificent.

W. J. Keith, "Riel's Great Vision," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVII, No. 677, December-January, 1977–78, p. 34.

Francis Mansbridge

Most contemporary Canadian novelists are writing within an urban context. To be more precise, their concerns are generally those of our society in its more "highly developed" state—the problem of alienation, a sense of personal guilt, the search for basic values, the healing power of love—all are concerns which modern Canadian novelists explore, often with great skill and sensitivity. The nature of these concerns is often shaped by a vision of the world in which the traditional feelings of community have broken down; the individual finds himself in existential isolation, charting his own fate with no exterior guide on which he can rely, and no possibility of any return to a state in which the individual can strengthen himself on the values of those with whom he shares his life.

If not entirely opposed to this mainstream of the contemporary Canadian novel, Rudy Wiebe's interests are certainly divergent. Throughout Wiebe's work is a strong sense of community—a sense of man as part of a larger context, even though his protagonists often spend much of their time trying to establish their identity either within or in opposition to their community. His earlier work draws on his Mennonite background as a correlative through which to express this sense of community. Often, as in his first novel Peace Shall Destroy Many, the negative elements of repression exerted by the community are portrayed vividly. But even here the feeling emerges that the community is good and will, in some form or another, survive. It is logical that Wiebe should turn in his more recent writing to re-create the history of Big Bear and his times. Like the Mennonite society, the Indian society of this time possessed a strong sense of community, although, in Wiebe's version at least, a greater sense of the spiritual content of life. His novel The Temptations of Big Bear is the most detailed evocation of this society, but later writing has continued to reveal Wiebe's fascination with this time…. (p. 42)

Peace Shall Destroy Many describes the attempts of Wapiti, a Mennonite community in northern Saskatchewan, to isolate itself from the changing world of 1944. More particularly, it relates the growth of Thomas Wiens to manhood, and his consequent struggle for freedom in a community whose repressiveness allows little room for original thinking or acting. The formidable figure of Peter Block, (aptly named, for he blocks Thom's growth), is the major obstacle to Thom's achievement of independence. Block, the founder and unquestioned head of...

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R. P. Bilan

[The Blue Mountains of China] is an impressive achievement. Although the problem of didacticism and the "syntactical awkwardness" in Wiebe's style—which leads to some very murky writing in places—are … obtrusive weaknesses …, they are more than offset by the novel's strengths. In The Blue Mountains of China Rudy Wiebe not only vividly recounts the history of a segment of the Mennonite people, but, more importantly, he presents a complex judgment of the Mennonites and the modern world, and compellingly dramatizes his own radically Christian vision. (p. 50)

For Rudy Wiebe, and the Mennonites he presents in his novel, the "kinds of things that we struggle with" are primarily...

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