Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2428
Much of Rudy Wiebe’s writing is profoundly informed by his Mennonite background and his moral convictions of how the human community ought to conduct its life. An inherent danger for any author who writes out of a strong ideology is to lapse into didacticism or moralism. Wiebe does not entirely escape that trap, especially in his early novels. Such lapses are usually brief, and in his later fiction the message increasingly is within the art rather than being superimposed upon it.
Basic to Wiebe’s moral framework is the belief that the essence of being human is spiritual. When the human link to God is broken or subverted, the consequence is invariably internal and external dissonance. Abe Ross in Wiebe’s second novel, First and Vital Candle, is one among many of Wiebe’s characters who represents that dissonance. Alienated from the faith of his childhood, he feels empty and lost. He searches for meaning in other faiths as a trading company agent among the Ojibway Indians in northern Ontario. When he meets the demoniac Bjornesen, who, without a conscience, exploits and corrupts the Indians, Ross is ready to kill him. The example and words of missionary Josh Bishop persuade Ross, however, of the Christian truth that evil can only be overcome with good. Sally Howell, teacher of Indian children, breaks down his agnosticism with her love and spirituality. When she dies, Ross is alone but ready to embrace the faith he had lost.
A second basic tenet of Wiebe’s religious view is that God means for people’s lives to be lived in harmony with and service to others. People are expected to look out for others rather than for themselves. When the link to God is intact and forged by a right understanding, it must follow that the link to one’s neighbor is also. When the first link is broken or weakened by misconceptions, the relationship to one’s neighbor is necessarily affected. This theme dominates Wiebe’s fiction. Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, in particular, dramatically—and sometimes dogmatically—drives home the message that any community (such as the Mennonite town of Wapiti) that lives only to preserve its own peace and well-being, with callous disregard for others, becomes self-destructive. Though Wiebe in his first novels too often manipulates plot and character and allows message to substitute for art, many scenes are rendered with power and promise of greater things to come.
In The Blue Mountains of China, that promise is amply fulfilled. Boldly experimental, Wiebe skillfully handles multiple settings, narrators, and points of view as he chronicles almost a century of Mennonite history. For all its complexity and variety, the message is still the same: The human community will succumb to greed, pride, and self-interest if it is not firmly guided by a moral vision of responsibility, integrity, and self-sacrifice.
Wiebe’s next novel drew considerable critical attention. In The Temptations of Big Bear, Wiebe shifts the focus away from his own ethnic and religious roots, though not from northern Saskatchewan. Wiebe had discovered that Big Bear, the powerful chief of the Plains Cree, had once lived where he did, and the idea intrigued him profoundly and led him to a third thematic interest: the connection between self and the land. In his first novel, Wiebe alludes to the great-granddaughter of Big Bear.Hearing her tell of Big Bear, Louis Riel, Wandering Spirit, Thom glimpsed the vast past of Canada regarding which he was ignorant as if it had never been: of people that had lived and acted as nobly as they knew and died without fear.
Wiebe wrote The Temptations of Big Bear to rectify that ignorance. In Big Bear and through Louis Riel, the leader of the Métis in The Scorched-Wood People (1977), he re-creates historical characters who tried to change the course of history, endowing them with heroic and tragic stature. Both men refused to accept the white man’s terms that would take away their land, their way of life, their culture, and their identity. Wiebe’s most inspired writing occurs in the voice of Big Bear, a voice whose poignant beauty and poetic eloquence reduce many of the white man’s speeches to mere chatter. Big Bear and Riel represent the author’s ideal. They are men of great spiritual depth and power, of peace and wisdom, of nobility and vision who suffer on behalf of their people, men who inspire awe and profound respect.
Wiebe’s fiction does not make for easy reading. Highly experimental, he often employs a variety of narrative techniques, multiple voices, and radical shifts in point of view and time. The serious reader nearly always is amply rewarded.
A Discovery of Strangers reminds readers of the power of Wiebe’s art. He deals with the land and the epic events that played themselves out on that land. It is the story of John Franklin’s first expedition to the Arctic in 1820. All the characters are based with realistic accuracy on real people, and all the events in the novel actually happened. The beauty of Wiebe’s prose and his narrative skill transmute history into a compelling meditation on the human condition.
In all of his fiction, Wiebe celebrates the heroic, both physical and moral. Clearly committed to a moral and spiritual view of the human community, he shows the reader what people can be and what people ought to be, in contrast to what people all too often are. Wiebe has said that his fiction intends “to make us better.”
Peace Shall Destroy Many
First published: 1962
Type of work: Novel
A young man must choose between the peace of an isolated and insulated Mennonite community and the cause of peace in a war-torn world.
Peace Shall Destroy Many, Wiebe’s first novel, is about the moral failures and triumphs that define the life of the human community, in this case the small Mennonite community of Wapiti in northern Saskatchewan.
The backdrop for the story is World War II. Military planes fly training missions above the town, disturbing the peace of the community, causing stillbirths among the cattle. Young Thom Wiens, plowing the fields under those planes, resents their intrusion and the violence with which he knows they are connected. The novel traces Thom’s growing awareness that pacifism may be self-serving, that the apparent peace of a community may be artificial and mask the violence lurking beneath, and that peace and violence are often inextricably entangled.
Thom’s mentor in his moral and intellectual awakening is Joseph Dueck, a teacher, whose penetrating questions and progressive views disturb the community’s peace as much as do the planes overhead. Representing the orthodoxy of the community is Deacon Peter Block, the founder of Wapiti, an authoritarian moral watchman, and a forceful preserver of tradition. Thom discovers that this tradition includes a smug superiority that allows the Mennonites to think of and treat the Métis and Indians among them as subhuman. The tradition does not allow for active participation in war but feels free to profit from that war by selling the community’s produce to the soldiers. The tradition wields authority but lacks the warmth of a compassionate heart. The tradition has bred hypocrisy, greed, hate, and bigotry.
Thom’s education comes to dramatic completion in the last chapter. During the traditional Christmas pageant, he tries to clarify to himself where the star of Bethlehem that the wise men followed had led them: to the war in Europe or to the peace of Wapiti. He discovers the answer when, in a nearby barn, violence explodes, triggered by sexual passion. The appearances of a town and a people, so carefully guarded, are pierced, exposing the failures underneath. Wapiti too has been at war. It too is in need of peace, real peace—the peace of God.
Wiebe found his thematic center in this first novel, but he was still struggling to develop a craft that would make his narrative aesthetically pleasing and a consistent joy to read. Some skills are already well applied in the first novel. The four-season structure of the narrative effectively supports the plot. The characters too are clearly defined and developed. The dialogue is often forced and flat, however, and the preachiness weakens the message. This first novel, a young man’s novel, is impressive in its moral seriousness and shows much potential for further artistic growth.
The Blue Mountains of China
First published: 1970
Type of work: Novel
In their historical struggle to find a homeland, the Mennonites face a choice between isolation or assimilation.
In The Blue Mountains of China, Wiebe offers a sweeping, panoramic view of Mennonites as they moved from Russia to Paraguay to China to Canada between the 1920’s and the 1960’s. A deliberately disjointed narrative tells the story of families who face the terrors of persecution and death, who exhibit acts of cowardice and courage, who confront the temptations of success and unbelief.
Central to this saga is the voice of Frieda Friesen, who at age eighty-four tells of the past. The past includes the hardships of poverty, marriage, the birth and death of many children, migration from Canada to Paraguay, plagues, epidemics, and wars. It is the quiet voice of faith, rock-steady even through intense turmoil and severe trials. Frieda’s voice is interspersed with other voices. (In fact, a different point of view informs each chapter, a considerable challenge even to the serious reader.) The voices include that of Jakob Friesen, a cousin of Frieda who speaks not of faith but of unbelief. Jakob Friesen, who tried to live for self, betrayed his son, was sentenced to ten years in Siberia, and when he was released found he had lost his family as well as his faith in the goodness of God.
There is also the story of David Epp, who, inspired by the moral courage and rectitude of his parents, leads a group of Mennonites to safety across the border to China. Then he returns to their Russian village to take the punishment upon himself. This spiritual legacy is passed on to his son, whom he never sees, but who later becomes a missionary among the Indians in a remote part of Paraguay. The spiritual force of David Epp’s example also generates the story of Sam Reimer, who hears God calling him to proclaim for peace in Vietnam. When Sam dies, the inspiration to serve God that passed from father to son passes from Sam to his brother John. John Reimer literally takes up his cross and walks across Canada, a living example that the promised land for Mennonites or any human community will not be found in withdrawal or material success and security. It lies rather in a state of inward peace that comes from doing justice, from showing mercy, and from walking humbly with God.
Wiebe blends many voices in the last chapter, including the lapsed Mennonites who because of materialism, intellectual doubt, or emotional trauma have abandoned the faith, and John Reimer, the man of faith. Their community is splintered, with too many severed from the most vital connections. There is little hope that it will ever be whole again. Though Wiebe’s message is similar in his first three novels, his increasing artistic finesse and control are evident in this novel. Stylistic variety and structural inventiveness provide an impressive display of the author’s maturing skill.
“The Naming of Albert Johnson”
First published: 1974 (collected in Where Is the Voice Coming From?, 1974)
Type of work: Short story
A fugitive from justice eludes the Mounties for fifty winter days across hundreds of miles of frozen tundra north of the Arctic Circle.
“The Naming of Albert Johnson” is based on a mysterious, silent, and real person known to millions in the early 1930’s as the Mad Trapper of Rat River. (Wiebe published a novel in 1980, The Mad Trapper, that amplifies this story.) After he shoots a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the trapper becomes the object of a relentless chase. He becomes the first man in history to cross the forbidding Richardson Mountains in the dead of winter. No one ever discovered his real name, but he came to be known as Albert Johnson. Johnson is a self-exiled, wordless, solitary figure who shuns any human contact. He survives by his skills as a trapper in the Northwest Territories. When a Mountie, who is investigating thefts from Indian traplines, approaches him, the trapper shoots without hesitation. The pursuit is on.
Wiebe tells this first-rate adventure story from Johnson’s point of view, a clever strategy, for it increases the likelihood of reader sympathy with the lone villain, who might otherwise be without dimension as character. The villain turns out to be no ordinary mortal. Words do not define him, but an indomitable will and force do. He pits himself against a large posse of Mounties with more than forty dogs. They dynamite his cabin, but he escapes.
With superhuman courage and strength he outruns them through mountain passes where no human has ever ventured in winter. With animal cunning he outsmarts the dog teams, the radiomen, and even the tracking plane overhead. He keeps going with little sleep and food in spite of frozen toes and cheeks. His tenacity and brooding rage are wordless. Those who venture too close he picks off with his unerring rifle. For fifty days he makes fools of the well-fed, well-equipped group of Mounties, with the frozen landscape a mute witness to this unequal chase. A river looping back on itself betrays him. Suddenly the dogs and the men are upon him. Finally there remains only a small crumpled body on a bedroll, a bullet in its spine, and a face frozen into a permanent snarl. All around, there is the immensity of the blasted Yukon, an appropriate symbol for the lonely anonymity of the Mad Trapper.
The story itself does not follow chronological order. Wiebe begins with the end of the hunt, and then unwinds time in reverse. The effect is that the story does not move toward climax, but toward a growing sense of wonder about the antihero, this exile from the human community and from communication. The reader cannot help but feel admiration for the extraordinary survival skills of the nameless man. More importantly, Wiebe elicits the reader’s sympathy for the human condition that can produce an Albert Johnson, disconnected from all sense of human belonging, whose blighted sense of significance can only assert itself destructively.
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