According to one critic, Robert Kroetsch, “Wiebe has a gift for recording the speech of his characters”; he adds “to these voices an eye for the rich details of daily life [and] a narrative ability to move through vast stretches of time and space.” This narrative ability helps Wiebe craft an effective episodic structure in the novel that places the lives of its five main characters in sharp relief.
Frieda Friesen, her vibrant journal entries burning with faith, stands as a calming presence in the midst of others’ turmoil. Her quiet peace, as she faces temptation with endurance and perseverance, represents the core of the Mennonite faith that helps disciples endure in the midst of suffering and hardship. It is her spirit which informs David Epp’s faith as he faces his death; seeing the “blue mountains of China” from afar, he realizes that while they represent to his emancipated believers their cherished freedom, they mean to him only death. Yet he faces them with a tranquil heart: “In the moonlight outside he thought he could see the blue line of the mountains far away, beautiful as they had ever been from there. But he knew now that was only his imagination. Or romantic nostalgia.”
The tested, overcoming faith of Frieda Friesen and David Epp contrasts greatly with the less rooted and grounded faith of Samuel and John Reimer Samuel comes late to his strong faith and only at the prompting of a miraculous call; his failure to obey the call ultimately leads him to despair and to a resignation to the world. John Reimer, on the other hand, evinces a bold but seemingly superficial faith that leads him to emphasize the outer trappings of Christianity rather than its inner truth—an attitude symbolized by the conspicuous cross he carries with him.
Jakob Friesen, whose faith has been tried and found wanting, is the novel’s most complex and moving character. In his conversation with John Reimer, Friesen’s cynicism and lack of hope are informed by a grudging respect for Jesus and the paradoxes in his teaching. Jakob is ultimately a more compelling figure in his despair than John Reimer, whose buoyant, confident faith seems glib.