new Mennonite Life logo    June 2000     vol. 55 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Book Reviews

Barbara Nickel, The Gladys Elegies. Regina, Saskatchewan: Coteau Books, 1997. Pp 81. ($8.95 ­ paperback) ISBN 1-55050-112-7. Reviewed by Rhoda Janzen.

Wilmer A. Harms, The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K. Hillsboro, KS: Hearth Publishing, 1998. Pp. 203. ($20.00 ­ paperback) ISBN 1-889902-12-8. Reviewed by Lawrence Klippenstein.

Nathan B. Hege, Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948-1998. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998. Pp. 279. ISBN 0-8361-9085-8. Reviewed by Alain Epp Weaver.

Mary Swartley and Rhoda Keener, eds., She Has Done a Good Thing: Mennonite Women Leaders Tell Their Stories. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999. Pp. 272. ISBN 0-8361-9112-9. Reviewed by Anna K. Juhnke.

Barbara Nickel, The Gladys Elegies. Regina, Saskatchewan: Coteau Books, 1997. Pp 81. ($8.95 ­ paperback) ISBN 1-55050-112-7

Barbara Nickel's The Gladys Elegies opens with a sonnet sequence based on the fictionalized lives of twins Gladys Muriel and Marion Carol Rungee, whose intimate lifelong relationship becomes the prompt for the poems. The real subject, however, is standard feminist fare--yup, we get it. Husbands and dads can be abusive. Women can be victims. Traditional patriarchal systems of governance can be stifling. And, in this case at least, shared victimization can knot that cord of intimacy pretty darn tight.

The poems would be better if the poet could move beyond the cliché, or at least push the conclusion further. Not only do the self-consciously poetic images stack up (wounds and wombs, unsurprisingly), but Nickel seems content to hint at all the negative things that trail in the wake of abusive relationships--entrapment, filial dependence, domestic enslavement, emotional paralysis. Been there, done that. What if she pushed beyond the obvious and the usual? What if Nickel explored instead the ramifications of staying in an abusive relationship in positive or creative terms? What if, for a poetic surprise, the accusing finger were not pointed at the fathers and husbands? Or if, after pointing the finger, the poet moved beyond the obvious moral truism Men Who Abuse Are Bad? Any feminist can carry the argument to where Nickel has set it down. The trick of the poet is to nurse an argument to maturation. But Nickel rings the doorbell, sets it down like an unwanted baby, and runs away.

The sonnets are readable, despite the stiff-backed spiny meter. As a prosodist, Nickel rarely reaches the charm and ease of lines like these that close one of the sonnets:

Today I heard the clock's insistent chant:
Tell Gladys she should leave before she can't.

This couplet has all the metrical ésouciance of Justice or Schnackenberg, but Nickel's meter more often recalls Pope's acerbic observation, "When Ajax strives, some Rock's vast weight to throw,/ The Line too labours, and the words move slow." (Essays in Criticism, lines 370-1) When the meter clicks like a metronome, the poet needs more practice and more variation.

After the Gladys Elegies, four more sections explicitly take on the subject of Mennonite history as it constitutes the Mennonite present. And many of these are lovely collages, highly imagistic and fragmented. Anyone raised in an ethnic Mennonite community will love "Komm, Essen," a poem whose titular divisions (Faspa, Blutwurst, Plume Mooss, etc.) combine the effects of historicized symbology with the nostalgic oomph of an old family photo album. In this respect Nickel echoes and reprises Mennonite poets who have done the same, Julia Kasdorf and Jean Janzen.

In the last section, "The Rosary Sonatas," inspired by a sound recording of Heinrich Biber's Rosenkranz-Sonaten, three worlds are drawn into delicate balance: the world of New Testament topography; the world of musical knowledge, and the world of poetry, with its elisions, assumptions and privacies. Nickel extends the feminist interest by ascribing to Mary, Mother of Christ, an emotional response upon Biblical occasions like the Annunciation and Mary's visit to Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth celebrate their emotions in literal terms (blackberry wine, piano, stringed instruments). And indeed, the fragmented beauty of representing imagined emotion in such terms produces a quiet purity in the lines. Yet the overall effect of the piece is one of interiorization. Nickel loses much by accommodating, then abandoning, many of the stereotypes that cling to contemporary poetry: that poetry is all about emotion rather than thought; that poetry is too difficult to follow; that over-reliance on broken syntax and fleeting impressions robs the poem (and the poet) of intellectual substance.

Most of these stereotypes are irrelevant to most poets, of course, who go on writing what they want to write, in exactly the way they want to write it. But here the accommodation of stereotype is troubling because Nickel does not go beyond it. What's she trying to say, really? That the lives of Jesus and Mary might be read interestingly if imaged metonymically and musically? Sure they might. But at some point the reader must ask: why? Why should we read this way? What do we get out of it? If a poet brings three elaborate tensile worlds together just for the sake of bringing them together, what is the reader to take away except sensation? And surely poetry is more than sensation.

The Gladys Elegies is worth reading on two levels. First, it offers some poems that are so successful that they invite audience participation, both literal and semantic. The smart sonnet "Busking," for example, twice positions the reader as audience, once to the poem and once to the busker whose performance is breathtaking. This poem is about more than sensation: it actually challenges the reader to think about the meaning of art. It insists that art is like laughing or marketing for tomatoes--in other words, that art is life, a tendentious claim by anybody's standards.

On the second level, The Gladys Elegies is worth reading because its soft-shoe prettiness invites the reader to think about the purpose of art, and the direction of contemporary poetry. Most of these poems tiptoe down the hushed hall of imagination, where connecting doors are shut and a carpet muffles the sound. And such a corridor satisfies if what you want is a dim private space. But on the other hand, why not knock on a couple of the doors along the way?

Rhoda Janzen
1997 California Poet Laureate
Los Angeles, California

Wilmer A. Harms, The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K. Hillsboro, KS: Hearth Publishing, 1998. Pp. 203. ($20.00 ­ paperback) ISBN 1-889902-12-8

This volume is simultaneously a tribute to a remarkable woman, Anna K, and a significant memento of recall for a troubled period in Mennonite history. Anna herself was one of several hundred persons who felt an irresistible urge to leave their homeland when it fell into the hands of an intolerable regime in the early days of the Soviet Union. Thousands found ways to leave legally but many others who wanted to were permanently barred from doing so. These people refused to accept that as the last word on their future.

Anna Klassen (later the wife of George Neufeld, who died two weeks after their wedding), a young woman from the Mennonite community of Ignatevo in eastern Ukraine, was one of several persons who decided to travel to Siberia from Moscow and escape by fleeing across the Amur River and make it out to the West somehow. To give details of how that could actually happen, leading eventually to a teaching career at Bethel College in Kansas, would be to give away an incredible story. It is a "must" read, and we hope review readers will make sure they do.

But before the saga gets told by Harms, who was determined to get the story written up and out, we are treated to a brief history of Germans in Russia, and then a whole series of shorter escape episodes and adventures of both Lutherans and Mennonites, equally daring and exciting for those involved.

We are given the Johann H. Friesen family's flight to China, for instance, and the David Unruh family escape, then the better-known Shumanovka village escape, and the Isaak family escape. There are others: the chapter on Dr. Johann J. Isaac, then a story about Batum and Constantinople, and "Immer weiter nach Osten," and more. A number of the accounts gain in extra vividness through their autobiographical medium. There is unmeasured suspense in the numberless instances of unsurmountable difficulties and hardships, which are however overcome.

There is a focal point in many of these stories that is connected with the city of Harbin in China. Much more needs to be written about this international community which played a role in many of these escapes, but has a certain broader significance in the Russia-China relationship, especially in the post-1917 period. The portrait by Harms goes a long way to filling in this piece of the puzzle.

The project is deeply indebted to the initiative of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in getting the project going, and specifically also the files of material generated by the Lutheran Mission in Harbin, China. It is the special contribution of Dr. Harms to have researched these files, relatively untouched until now, in order to bring forward the Lutheran and also Mennonite data which they hold. As well, the book makes clear what not all Mennonites recognize: that their story is part of a much broader "saga" of the experience of several million German Russians with whom they were in all this together.

For the first time, readers are then offered some very interesting and extensive lists which form a major appendix to this volume: a list, first of all, of all the Lutheran refugees whose names (526 here) appear in the Harbin Mission records (now held at the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago, Illinois), then a list of Mennonite refugees (649, including nine Klippensteins!) who registered at Harbin (for which data has been drawn from the Archives of the Mennonite Church at Goshen, Indiana, and the H. P. Krehbiel papers at the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas), and finally a list of those Mennonite refugees (a total of 207 persons) who arrived on the west coast of the USA in 1929-1930 (including two Klippenstein families of six persons each).

Not least of all the listings, note three young women who got student visas from the American consulate at Harbin, China: the undaunted Anna K, Susie Penner (who later moved to Paraguay to marry Peter Hildebrand), and Mia Reimer (later Mrs. A. A. DeFehr of Winnipeg, Manitoba), who all enrolled at Bethel College in 1931, and where Anna then completed an A. B. degree, with an MA to follow at the University of Kansas -- all this at the end of their unbelievable journey which they made together.

One might add a quibble. A few spelling errors have slipped in (should be Molotschna on p. 123, a computer slip gave the Amur River its Armur version here, and the reference on p. 117 is undoubtedly to Zaporozh'e which used to be partly Chortitza many years ago).

Several photos and a map are helpful additions though, and a brief bibliography is also very apropos. There is even a veiled promise that a sequel to this volume might be forthcoming -- much collected material could not be included here. We hope that may happen sooner rather than later. Such data needs to reach the public, not only for research reasons, but the larger Lutheran and Mennonite and even wider constituency as well. The larger Siberian story, too, is waiting to be told, and this volume may spur on those who ought to get in the telling of this "saga" as well. Persons wishing to contact the author may write to 2904B Ivy Dr., North Newton, KS 67117.

Lawrence Klippenstein
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Nathan B. Hege, Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948-1998. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998. Pp. 279. ISBN 0-8361-9085-8

"We obey God. Our minds are God's property." This poignant testimony, offered by a member of the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) to a Marxist official in Ethiopia, is but one of many stirring declarations of faith in Nathan Hege's history of Anabaptism in Ethiopia. The Meserete Kristos Church, or "Christ Foundation Church," is gearing up to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and Hege, who served in Ethiopia for nearly a quarter of a century with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions, has gifted us with an insightful and inspiring narrative to mark this milestone.

Hege carefully balances the stories of North American missionaries with the testimonies of Ethiopian believers. The first half of the book examines missionary efforts in education, medicine, and development, while the second half narrates the birth, growth, suffering, and survival of an Anabaptist Ethiopian church. The story of how the MKC survived, even thrived, under Marxist persecution is particularly inspirational.

Several aspects of Hege's study deserve to be highlighted. Most laudable is Hege's ability to cast a critical, if ultimately sympathetic, eye on the fascinating history of North American Mennonite missionary work. Looking over the list of workers who have passed through Ethiopia, one is moved by the years of service that North Americans were willing to dedicate to the mission field. The example of missionaries who spent decades overseas stands as a silent rebuke to the present trend within Mennonite churches to clamor for increasingly shorter terms of service.

Hege skillfully explains the tensions which arose between Mennonite mission workers in Ethiopia and their sponsoring North American churches. Missionaries discovered, for example, that the plain coat which they were expected by their sending churches to wear had the unwanted effect of reinforcing a distinction between the clergy and the laity that an Anabaptist faith was supposed to undermine. Such discoveries earned some missionaries the label of rebel back home, while their work in health and development conjured up fears that the missionaries had become proponents of a "social gospel."

Some quotes uncovered by Hege's research remind the reader of the potentially problematic character of mission work. Deploying the vocabulary of colonialism, Orie Miller, then the secretary of the Eastern Board, said that Ethiopia "is just opening up to mission work, and it is as yet practically unoccupied by Protestant forces." A medical missionary reasoned that "When folks are sick, be they Muslim or otherwise, they are in a mood to hear the gospel." Such statements help to explain the suspicion of a Marxist official that "Although you bring grain in your right hand, you have the Bible hidden in your left hand."

Hege also wonders about missionary attitudes towards the Ethiopian Orthodox church, with its centuries of Christian witness. "Did the missionaries of the twentieth century pause long enough to really appreciate the faithfulness of this people?" Hege asks pointedly. Unlike some other Protestant missions in Ethiopia which sought to bring about a revival within the Orthodox church, the Mennonite missionaries were focused on starting a new, evangelical church. Members of the MKC often faced a variety of social sanctions from the Orthodox church, most painfully the denial of burial rights in Orthodox cemeteries. The MKC appears to have weathered such prejudice with grace; its leaders urged Hege not to be overly critical of the Orthodox church in his study. Today the MKC makes overtures for dialogue to the Orthodox church, overtures often met with silence. In the words of one Orthodox cleric: "We are the church in Ethiopia, and have no reason to dialogue with evangelicals."

In addition to his willingness to engage in gentle critique of Mennonite missionary work, Hege is also to be commended for not writing a history solely concerned with North American missionaries. Hege gives pride of place to the stories of Ethiopian Christians, rightfully celebrating the rapid growth of the MKC and honoring its remarkable fortitude under Marxist oppression.

Few criticisms can be leveled against this fine study. The references to "Israel" on pp. 41 and 45 are anachronistic, as the discussion involves missionary travel to Palestine in 1947 under the British Mandate. Also, while Hege generally takes care to highlight the role of women as well as men on the mission field, at times he lapses into less inclusive usage, e.g. referring to the "Nevin Horsts" (63).

Helpful appendices include a map of Ethiopia showing the geographic distribution of the MKC; a chronological survey of historical highlights; and a comprehensive list of all workers who served in Ethiopia with EMM, MCC, and the Mennonite Relief Committee, noting their positions and years of service.

Missionaries, students of missiology and church history, and anyone concerned with the church's international witness will benefit from Hege's thorough study.

Alain Epp Weaver
Mennonite Central Committee

Mary Swartley and Rhoda Keener, eds., She Has Done a Good Thing: Mennonite Women Leaders Tell Their Stories. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999. Pp. 272. ISBN 0-8361-9112-9.

The vision of Mary Swartley's "sowing circle" of Mennonite women leaders in Elkhart, Indiana, has been fulfilled in a collection of 26 first-person accounts by women pastors, theologians, administrators, and educators. All are from the Mennonite Church or the General Conference Mennonite Church, and all live in the United States (mostly Indiana and eastward), except for Lydia Neufeld Harder, a Canadian theologian.

The title, She Has Done a Good Thing, quotes Jesus in Mark 14:6, affirming the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus' feet and endured criticism from the men surrounding him. Marilyn Miller, the first woman to be ordained to a General Conference pastorate (1976), develops this theme in the final essay of the book. During the sharing time at Marilyn's ordination, her mother gave her blessing but spoke at length about the Bible instructing women to stay at home and be helpmeets to their husbands. It takes "grace and gumption" to offer your all to Christ rather than measure out the perfume in small acceptable ways.

The essays are very well written, and in editing them Rhoda Keener has highlighted the telling metaphors. Bluffton College president Lee Snyder remembered her Amish Mennonite grandmother's flaming red poppies as an inspiration to be extraordinary, in a world of few professional role models for women. Editor and theologian Reta Halteman Finger found herself "standing in the gap" between the Bible and feminism. Marian Claassen Franz learned "I can't make that much potato salad" to heal the tragedies of inner-city Chicago, and she went on to challenge militarism as Executive Director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.

The book is intended for celebration and inspiration. However, the essays and the brief introductory biographies (which should have included birth dates) are a resource for scholars too. The book reflects a generation of transition. The majority of the writers are in their mid-50s to mid-60s and are married. They and their husbands grew up when distinct roles for men and women were hardly questioned. Most of the women prepared themselves for careers in "female" fields, such as the seven who taught English. Their testimonies, though reporting obstacles, are often full of joyful surprise at God's calling and guidance as "way leads on to way," in the words of Marlene Kropf, an ordained seminary professor and Minister of Worship and Spirituality. There are many grateful tributes to supportive husbands, some of them pastors who learned to be co-pastors. Most critical of the slow pace of change are Shirley Buckwalter Yoder and Carol Suter, who are leading business-oriented Mennonite organizations after experiencing more acceptance of women's talents outside of Mennonite circles.

The oldest pioneer of the book, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, developed a successful speaking ministry based on her radio "Heart to Heart" and other series. She became a spokesperson for women's leadership in the Mennonite Church in the 1970s and 1980s and a lightning rod for Virginia Conference when she was ordained in 1989 at age 74. In her essay and in Carol Suter's are glimpses of MC and GC denominational politics. Pauline Graybill Kennel and Joyce Musselman Shutt touch on area-conference struggles over the traditional prayer covering and over women's ordination. There are also hints of generational tension among women themselves. Younger feminists criticized Emma Sommers Richards, the first woman ordained in the Mennonite Church (1972), for the cautious boundaries she set for her ministry. Bertha Fast Harder, seminary instructor in Christian Education 1958-83, was a mentor to Mennonite women in seminary, including the short-lived General Conference "Women in Church Vocations" organization, 1958-61. But by the late 1970s she was marginalized, when young women at the seminary laid claim to traditionally male roles.

The book itself is limited to women who have become leaders in "male" fields. Leaders of churchwide women's organizations and female pastors in overseas missions became eligible by going on to do jobs formerly reserved for men. Future scholars will need to analyze institutional patterns of women's participation and leadership in all areas of the church and in organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee. Meanwhile it is good to celebrate progress and the contributions of these 26 outstanding female Mennonite leaders.

Anna K. Juhnke
North Newton, Kansas