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One Foot in Heaven
by David Waltner-Toews
Coteau Books
288 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted June 3, 2005

Mennonite writing was once an oxymoron along the lines of ‘military intelligence’ or ‘government organization.’ The religion’s repressive culture deemed fiction to be lies, and Mennonite writers risked ostracism. In 1962, Rudy Wiebe, one of the pioneers of Mennonite fiction in Canada, resigned his editorship of the Mennonite Brethren Herald, a national periodical, after his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, stirred up a controversy in the community.

Many young Mennonite writers still face criticism or disapproval from elder relatives or community leaders. In spite of this or perhaps in response to it—after all, art often flourishes in oppression—an impressive body of Mennonite literature has already been published in Canada. Miriam Toews’ third novel, A Complicated Kindness, won last year’s Governor-General’s Award and has topped bestseller lists since its publication last April.

David Waltner-Toews (no relation to Miriam) is the latest addition to the Canadian MennoLit contingent. He is a professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Guelph and a well-established poet with six published collections; One Foot in Heaven marks his first fiction publication.

One Foot in Heaven is a collection of linked short stories. Its central character is Prom Koslowski, a Mennonite born in the Soviet Union who escapes across the Himalayas with his pregnant wife only to lose her in childbirth. He eventually settles in Plumstein, Alberta with his twin children, Sarah and Thomas. In the first two stories, “Wild Geese” and “Boysenberry Jam,” encounters with his Ukrainian neighbour, Jerry Evanko, send Prom deep into the dark recesses of his worst childhood memories.

A humorous side appears in the third story, “The Miracle,” in which we meet the local vet, Bernie ‘Bottoms-up’ Pezuk, who “drove a rattletrap white Dodge, known around Plumstein as the White Rocket. When the White Rocket shot by in a cloud of dust or snow, several feet above the rutted road, farmers would pause momentarily in their work, in awe and curiosity, wondering whose animal was having problems now.”

In “Getting Saved,” the fourth story, the focus shifts to Abner Dueck, a teenager suffering through the trials of adolescence at Camp Summercross north of Winnipeg. At first, there seems to be no connection to the earlier stories, at least not until Ab reveals a deep attraction to one Sarah Koslowski in the neighbouring girls’ camp. His infatuation is strengthened by a chance sighting: “Through the open door he caught a brief, startling glimpse of what appeared to be a large, soft, unbaked zwieback, smooth-skinned and double-bunned, just like his mother made, but turned sideways. It was Sarah Koslowski, bending over to pick up an article of clothing, or rather, it was Sarah Koslowski’s bum, forever burned into his mind, destined to haunt him forever.”

Mennonites, as Anabaptists, disagree with birth baptism. Usually, one is baptised as a teenager. “Getting Saved” and “The Desires of the Spirit” perfectly capture the contradictory tension between the ecstasy of adolescent hormones and religious rapture.

Later stories focus on Thomas Koslowski, who becomes a missionary working for the Mennonite Central Committee in India, Thailand and Cambodia, and then his sister Sarah, who marries Ab’s best friend, George, and gives up on her dreams to be a veterinarian in favour of having children. “A Sunny Day in Canada,” the final story returns to Prom Koslowski, at ninety years old, as he faces the end of his life in a nursing home.

The early stories in which Sarah, Thomas and Ab are children are the collection’s best, demonstrating restraint and precision that Waltner-Toews must have learned writing poetry. Once his characters reach adulthood, however, the stories begin to sprawl and meander. The title story, in particular, possesses enough plot to build a novel around, but as a story, it is unsatisfying and disjointed.

Overall, there is certainly enough here to recommend. Mennonites will find plenty to entertain them, and non-Mennonite readers will enjoy this glimpse into the culture.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer of Mennonite descent.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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