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Wiebe, Rudy 1934–

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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

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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 China] is concerned with the practical experience of [inner] peace in man's life. Central to an understanding of the theology of both novels are Joseph Dueck's lengthy comments on the several meanings of the term peace, comments making up a treatise rather too awkwardly presented within the context of Peace Shall Destroy Many, in the form of a letter from Dueck to Thom Wiens. Wiebe will not be misunderstood here. (p. 73)

Apathy and retreat had become for the Mennonites a vulgarized expression of the concept of social and political passivity which had been adopted by the Anabaptists during and after their many years of persecution. Although they had originated as the forceful left wing of the Reformation, the Mennonites, driven relentlessly by their pursuers into the far corners of the continent, were early forced to withdraw from all forms of public life. They came to be known, and to regard themselves, as "die Stille im Lande;" that is, "the quiet in the land." Their passivity was most obviously demonstrated in their doctrine of non-resistance, a belief initially respected by the governments of the countries in which they chose to settle. Dueck insists that the Mennonites must begin to express their pacifism not by turning away from the hatred and warfare in the world, but by combatting it with positive action, an idea more violently reiterated by the inwardly tormented Samuel U. Reimer…. (pp. 73-4)

Sam Reimer stands somewhere between those characters whom Wiebe presents as people able to more forward positively, enthusiastically embracing an existence to which a faith in God has given meaning, and those in whom irrepressible guilt has brought about a complete rejection of life. Beside Sam on the one hand is David Epp, "reckless of anything save his reckless faith."…

The prose passage which expresses David's emotions when he arrives in Russia, after crossing back alone over the blue mountains of China, contains one of the most explicit allusions to the title of the novel and illuminates the thematic significance of the title within the context of the work. The phrase, "the blue line … of the mountains," is interrupted by a significant short interior monologue—a narrative mode which, throughout the novel, renders the most personal responses of a character to his immediate condition—"over every hilltop is peace now every treetop moves through you: every breath cease the nestlings hush in the wood now only wait you too will soon have peace."…

The only peace which David Epp can finally experience—the peace that was denied Sam Reimer—is the peace of God documented by Joseph Dueck in Peace Shall Destroy Many: "the peace of reconciliation with God and therefore the peace of conscious fellowship with God through God in Christ." As he sits in his deserted Russian home David sees the mountains again, but recognizing the irony inherent in what the blue mountains of China had actually come to represent to him, he sees them in a significantly new light: "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." (p. 74)

The most prominent theme of The Blue Mountains of China is that Mennonites are New Testament Christians whose promised land "isn't anywhere on earth." Their role, according to Wiebe, is not to seek the peace which they variously and erroneously have interpreted as quiescence, good order, or public tranquility. Peace, Wiebe insists, is an inner state. Nor are they to become passive and apathetic at home, as Sam Reimer says, accusingly, "growing fat off the land." According to Wiebe's theology, Jesus came not to bring man Gemütlichkeit, but, as John Reimer says, He came "to lead a revolution."…

Of all Wiebe's mature characters—that is, those who have passed beyond the time of childhood innocence and the accompanying "peacefulness" demonstrated by Hal Wiens in Peace Shall Destroy Many—it is Frieda Friesen who stands out as the one who expresses most completely that perfect state of being. (p. 75)

Frieda, in her "true quiet faith," is satisfied that her life is in God's hands. In her gentle first-person narratives, which are effectively interspersed throughout The Blue Mountains of China, she emphasizes in her quiet way the value of her own experiences, and by implication, the ultimately coherent, meaningful nature of experience in general. (pp. 75-6)

Wiebe is able to use her life as a fictional exploration of what it might mean for a human being to experience peace, such as the world cannot give, trust in God that allows him to accept both the easy and the hard of life with goodwill and enthusiasm. Wiebe has created in Frieda a completely believable and engaging character living out an ideal freedom from that inner tension which has come to be called the existential angst and thriving as a spiritual being regardless of the nature of external circumstances. Simply to affirm the truth of a promise of God is for many of Wiebe's characters the most significant gesture of their lives. To be able to live day by day in quiet faith, with the conscious knowledge of being at peace because, in the words of Frieda Friesen, "some things in this world only God has to understand," is the promise realized. (p. 76)

Hildegard E. Tiessen, "A Mighty Inner River: 'Peace' in the Fiction of Rudy Wiebe," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. II, No. 4, Fall, 1973, pp. 71-6.

W. J. Keith

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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

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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 the community, is the autocratic father-figure whom Thom must confront to gain the power to release his own character.

The structure of the novel reveals considerable control in the hands of the young novelist. Oppositions between the old and the new, between youth and age, and between instinct and rationality, are effectively presented. Frequent changes of pace and the ability to express feelings associated with domestic scenes or bitter elemental conflicts help give the novel variety and interest. Wiebe's main problem in this novel appears to be assimilating a wide range of thoughts and ideas into a sufficiently refined form. The structure is sturdy, but roughhewn. There are too many passages … in which Wiebe indulges in long discussions of issues. While they have considerable merit these might have been presented more effectively either symbolically or through action. (p. 43)

Wiebe is not a great prose stylist; he is living proof of the strange fact that a writer may be a considerable novelist while having a very indifferent command of the English language….

Wiebe's frequently awkward and ponderous style recalls that of [Frederick Grove]. Mordecai Richler has said of Grove that "the plain fact is he couldn't write very well." True, yet he is a formidable novelist, and so is Wiebe. But Wiebe's prose does have its difficult moments. (p. 44)

Similarities in characterization exist between Grove and Wiebe. Each has an ability to create impressive pioneer figures, but a similar faltering when attempting more "modern" character types. While Razia Tantamount and Hank Unger, in Peace Shall Destroy Many, are the least convincing characters in this novel, the Mennonite characters have a deeply realized vitality. And Wiebe is capable of a naturalness and humour with his characters, as in the scenes in the Wiens' household, that Grove rarely achieves.

Yet if Wiebe sometimes writes awkwardly, there are also happier times, as in the preludes to each of the four sections of which the novel is composed. They are both structurally and stylistically accomplished…. (p. 45)

Rudy Wiebe's later novels are generally more accomplished as works of art, but Peace Shall Destroy Many has an unusual appeal. While he was born a Mennonite, it is neither possible nor relevant to know the extent to which this novel might be based on recollections of his early life. It is relevant, though, that the novel has a burning urgency not shared by his later works to the same extent. Peace Shall Destroy Many is a rough work. The style is often awkward, the characterization uneven, and the didactic elements often obtrusive. But it is borne onward by a rare driving passion. Wiebe conveys the feeling that he cares very much about his characters and what happens to them.

As a form which from its origins has been closely associated with the middle class, the novel has always had the old puritan problem of "how to live" closer to its heart than has any other literary genre. Yet an intense moralistic concern, as expressed in Peace Shall Destroy Many, became less fashionable by mid-century, as novelists tended to veil their concern beneath layers of coolness and sophistication. Perhaps Wiebe's stronger sense of community enables him to keep the problem of "how to live" closer to the forefront of his work…. [Wiebe] is not afraid of committing himself—not even at the risk of appearing a fool. And sometimes the results are, indeed, strange, as in his second novel First and Vital Candle. But this ability to let go can also create an impressive splendour which shines through in such accomplishments as The Temptations of Big Bear or Peace Shall Destroy Many. His willingness to try the unusual makes him one of the most individual novelists writing in Canada today. (pp. 48-9)

Francis Mansbridge, "Wiebe's Sense of Community," in Canadian Literature, No. 77, Summer, 1978, pp. 42-9.

R. P. Bilan

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[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 questions of religious belief. However, the struggle for faith and a truly Christian way of life is beset by many difficulties: the suffering in life, the attractions of the secular materialistic world, and, particularly for the Mennonites, the temptation to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

Wiebe tells the Mennonites' history and explores his central themes in a book with a very unusual and complex structure. Many of the thirteen chapters of the novel read as almost self-contained stories, but Wiebe connects them in part by an intricate series of cross-references that help explain previous chapters and look forward to the ensuing ones…. The primary source of unity and continuity in the novel, however, is provided by the four chapters narrated by Frieda Friesen. (pp. 50-1)

[Frieda's temptation] scene has a crucial structural and thematic significance in the novel. Frieda's faith is strengthened here, and, of equal importance, the nature of her temptation is deliberately left ambiguous, for what is being emphasized is her resistance to any temptation. But in much of the rest of the novel Wiebe examines the experience of Mennonites who succumb to various "temptations." The main structural principle of the first half of the book, in fact, is to alternate the presentation of Frieda's faith with a chapter showing a Mennonite struggling with the confines of the religious tradition.

Jakob Friesen IV is in many ways a contrasting figure to Frieda…. Jakob never recovers from the guilt of abandoning his son and comes, unlike Frieda, to doubt God's justice. (p. 52)

Wiebe's attitude towards the Mennonites and the modern world is complex, and can't be ascertained from any single chapter. "The Well," which is in certain ways complementary to "Over the Red Line," examining the same issues, presents a different picture…. The trip made to the well by Anna Friesen, Frieda's daughter, dramatizes the choice between two kinds of life. And now for the first time Wiebe criticizes the conservatism of the Mennonites who have come to South America. The Indian women they encounter have a freedom and naturalness that the Mennonites distrust. (pp. 55-6)

It is not, however, primarily the Indians that cause the conservative Kanadier to worry, but the Russlander Mennonites—those who have become "modern" and those who, like Jakob Friesen, had stayed in Russia until 1929…. (p. 56)

The ultimate temptation that confronts a Mennonite, however, is to lose faith because of personal suffering. Jakob Friesen IV … in chapter eight, "The Cloister of the Lilies," as a prisoner in Siberia in 1932, is unable to accept his suffering without misgiving. As Jakob and another prisoner are being moved they stumble onto a cloister; within they discover a picture of a row of lilies hidden beneath the grime on a wall. This seems to symbolize Jakob's own relation to his faith; it is buried, hidden, indeed almost lost. As they wait out the blizzard a man arrives with his wife, who is dying, and they are desperately trying to reach home…. The woman is raped by the guards, yet she and her husband endure, and his advice to Jakob is "Survive."… Unlike Jakob, the man not only accepts his suffering but is able to affirm that "God is good." Jakob is at the point of losing his faith entirely, or at least doubting it; at the end of the novel he claims he "believes nothing." Yet Jakob is obsessed with the man's ambiguous statement: "Whatever the man had said … seemed for an instant to blaze with a kind of holy wisdom that was." Jakob's attempts to understand the statement show that he is still struggling with his faith, and it is because of this struggle that later, as an old man, he is attracted to John Reimer.

Having examined various Mennonites in conflict with their faith, Wiebe begins to emphasize more directly, in the second half of the novel, the kind of Christian response he himself admires. David Epp … in chapter nine, "Drink Ye All of It," represents the ethical ideal in Wiebe's religious vision. David and his family, with a group of Mennonites, escape from Russia into China, but David fears that the Mennonites left behind may be punished for their act. He decides, therefore, that he must leave his family and return to Russia to see if he can possibly exonerate the other Mennonites. He is giving up his freedom, and probably his life, in what may be a quixotic gesture. But the heroic nature of his act reverberates throughout the rest of the novel in the lives of those who come after him…. In his radical concern for others and in his willingness to sacrifice himself, David Epp shows himself to be a true follower of Christ. (pp. 57-8)

The problem of the lack of religious faith in the modern world is confronted directly by Wiebe in the last two chapters of the novel. Here he examines the radical responses of two men appalled both by the materialism of modern life and by the insularity of other Mennonites. "The Vietnam Call of Samuel V. Reimer" is accurately described by W. J. Keith as a "biblical parallel-cum-parody (I Samuel 3) which succeeds in being both humorous and serious at the same time." Samuel is called by God to go and proclaim peace in Vietnam. Wiebe apparently wants us to believe in the authenticity of Samuel's voice, but, in any case, in showing the resistance to Samuel and his mission, Wiebe presents his critique of the modern world. There is a total lack of faith and an inability to believe in the very possibility that God would still speak directly to man…. Samuel Reimer achieves a sense of what, in Wiebe's view, a truly fully Christian life involves, but the opposition to his plan proves too much for him; unlike David Epp, he fails to act on his belief. He gives in to despair and dies, and the story ends on an ironic note with the triumph of the material values he abhorred. (pp. 59-60)

[In the last chapter] John puts forth a view of Christianity which radically challenges the basic assumptions of the conservative Mennonites—and of many other Christians as well. He insists that a wide social concern is of the essence of Christianity…. John is especially critical of the position taken by the Mennonite church, for he argues that Jesus didn't intend to achieve his revolution "by setting up a church that can never change no matter where on earth or in what century it is." He redefines what the real church should be: "No! The church Jesus began is us living, everywhere, a new society that sets all the old ideas of man living with other men on its head." The new society is built by our "thinking different" about everything.

In articulating this view of Christianity John is quite obviously a spokesman for Wiebe himself…. [As] Wiebe is largely using John to assert his own view, rather than fully dramatizing it, the novel comes close to being overtly didactic at this point…. In the final section, however, where John attempts to explain his views to Jakob Friesen, the professed unbeliever, Wiebe is more successful at dramatizing his religious beliefs. (pp. 61-2)

[The novel's] title comes from the appearance of the Greater Khingan Mountains of China which David Epp [saw] as he led his people out of Russia…. The blue mountains symbolize the hope of the Mennonites that somewhere they will find a place where they will be able to lead their lives and religion in total peace and freedom. But the blue is "mocking" because the goal is unattainable, and, in the eyes of John Reimer—and Rudy Wiebe—it is finally undesirable. The Mennonites' dream of isolating and insulating themselves from the world involves a failure of true Christian responsibility, which is shown by being involved in the world. (p. 62)

R. P. Bilan, "Wiebe and Religious Struggle," in Canadian Literature, No. 77, Summer, 1978, pp. 50-63.

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