Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Rudy Wiebe (WEE-bee) was born in 1934 on his family’s farm in a small Mennonite community in Fairholme, Saskatchewan; his parents were émigrés from the Soviet Union. Wiebe began writing seriously during his undergraduate years at the University of Alberta (1953-1956) and took an M.A. in creative writing from that institution in 1960. He has held various teaching posts since that time, including one at Goshen College, Indiana (1963-1967), but in 1967 he began teaching full-time as a professor of creative writing at the University of Alberta, where he remained until his retirement in 1992.
It is Wiebe’s work as a novelist that has given him his fine reputation in his native land, though he has also carved out a formidable career as a short-story writer, playwright, and editor/critic. He has candidly described himself as “one who tries to explore the world that I know, the land and people of Western Canada, from my particular worldview: a radical Jesus-oriented Christianity.” To perform this function, Wiebe has characteristically chosen experimental modes of narration, particularly the use of multiple, omniscient narrators, whose compelling voices establish the theme that the struggle for personal identity is resolvable only through wrestling with one’s family and cultural past. As Wiebe explains, “I believe fiction must be precisely, peculiarly rooted in a particular place, in particular people.” His first language was Low German, and this cultural background—coupled with his devout Mennonite faith—forms the thematic landscape in which his early fiction is constructed. He has thus come to be widely praised as one of Canada’s most innovative “Prairie” writers.
The characters in Wiebe’s first three novels share the common plight of being “strangers in a strange land,” a religious remnant fighting for their faith and family identity in a modern world gone mad. Mennonite Christianity, evolving from the radical Anabaptist tradition, is a fiercely independent faith that demands of its practitioners a separation from the world—it compelled them to leave their native land, customs, and language in search of a country where they could live out their faith. Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, the title of which alludes to the Book of Daniel, is an ironic juxtaposition of two men’s wartime legalism and arrogance: the arrogant militarism of Adolf Hitler and the arrogant pacifism of Deacon Block, a Western Canadian Mennonite. Welcomed by critics for its evocation of time and place but equally criticized for its overt moralizing, this novel served notice that a new, yet unharnessed narrative power had emerged in Canadian letters. First and Vital Candle and The Blue Mountains of China both extend and display Wiebe’s unique narrative powers, again focusing on the theme of living out the Christian vision of society and culture when the signs, symbols, and very language of Christianity are seen as defunct and irrelevant. The former novel contains powerful evocations and celebrations of American Indian and Eskimo life, filtered through the consciousness of Abe Ross, a man in search of his lost faith. In The Blue Mountains of China Wiebe experiments further with his quasi-epic mode of narration. The novel has no conventional plot; each chapter is a somewhat self-contained and idiosyncratic account of the events, relationships, and inner thoughts of five principal characters, all Mennonites searching for the “land God had given them for their very own, to which they were called.” Wiebe’s epigraph to The Blue Mountains of China perhaps serves as a sardonic reminder of the common thread running through all of his novels: “They are still trying to find [this land], and it isn’t anywhere on earth.”
Native Western Canadians—the American Indians and Eskimos of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and parts farther north—often populate Wiebe’s fiction because they represent spiritual values markedly different from those of the world that has displaced them. The otherness and isolation characteristic of the radical Mennonite Christian community that Wiebe has attempted to chronicle are often mirrored in these non-Christian characters as well, who are themselves outcasts and wayfarers when measured against the mind-set of their times. That is certainly the case with Wiebe’s next novel, perhaps his most important, The Temptations of Big Bear, for which he received the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award in 1973. Here Wiebe fictionalizes the life and times of the great Prairie Indian chief Big Bear, who suffers, along with his tribe, the fate of all those who attempt to fight against the treacheries of the modern world, and the ethnocentrism of its leaders and social planners. Wiebe’s 1977 novel The Scorched-Wood People investigates the historical particulars surrounding the subjugation of the Metis, a proud people of mixed French and Indian descent. In a radical indictment of the prevailing Scottish and English Canadian politics, Wiebe depicts the Metis as a people better equipped to rule their land because of their close connection with their heritage. In contrast, white Canada is seen as thoroughly cut off from its own Christian heritage, as a consequence of which it has been guilty of cultural imperialism on a vast scale.
The two novels published in the 1980’s marked a departure. The Mad Trapper features a spine-tingling chase between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a wordless, solitary fugitive across the deadly Richardson Mountains. It is a first-rate adventure story but does not have the depth of his earlier works. My Lovely Enemy in 1983, on the other hand, suffered from excessive symbolism as it probes the ironic contraries between flesh and spirit, between dogma and truth.
In 1994 Wiebe enlarged his growing international reputation when he received his second Governor General’s Award for A Discovery of Strangers. It is the epic story of John Franklin’s first expedition to the Arctic in 1820, a story of bravery and treachery, of love and death. The ignorance and arrogance of the English explorers stand in ironic contrast to the patience and wisdom of the Indians on whom their survival depends. Sweeter than All the World is an even more epic tale, beginning with the persecution of the original Mennonites in the seventeenth century Netherlands and tracing the fortunes of their descendants down to World War II. Wiebe chose historical figures as the central characters of his novel, up to the final narrator, Adam Wiebe, born in 1935 Saskatchewan.
Wiebe’s fiction often employs a variety of narrative techniques, multiple voices, and radical shifts in point of view and time. He shares with such fellow Canadian writers as Alice Munro and Robertson Davies a keen eye for the distinctiveness of Canadian life and landscape and remains one of North America’s most eloquent and gifted fiction writers, focusing his attention especially on the life and meaning of the disfranchised indigenous peoples of North America.
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