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...
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