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( English edition: Growing Up In Blumenheim, also by Jack Driedger)
Small Mennonite villages in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are unique. The rest of the prairies were settled by homesteaders from all parts of Europe, so most communities were mixtures of Ukrainian, French, Scottish etc.
When Mennonites first came to Manitoba in the 1870s, they were granted certain privileges - the right to have their own schools in German, exemption from military service, and the right to settle in villages where they could go out to work their land without having to live on it. Finally, they were given access to large blocks of land, called Reserves, two in Manitoba, and twenty years later, two in Saskatchewan, for the exclusive settlement of Mennonites. In these villages they could live and work as their families had for many generations. Although High German was the formal written language of instruction, the common language in use in the homes and streets of the villages was Low German.
Jack Driedger's book, Enn Bloomenheim Oppjewossen, tells the stories of life as it was in these villages during the 1930s and ‘40s, as seen through the eyes of a growing boy. Because it is written in Low German, this book captures the essence of village life. He creates word pictures so vivid that you can feel the heat or the cold, taste the dry dust, smell the flowers, taste the vegetables, sense the desperation of the depression, and feel the deep sense of community.
The book touches on all of the things that capture the interests of a growing boy: horse drawn, covered sleighs, the Model T, the first motorcycle, radios, watermelons, hog butchering, Christmas, fishing, hunting gophers and rabbits, and of course, school and family life. The one element, conspicuous by its absence, is any mention of Church life.
Because the stories are set in the 20s and 30s, they also capture the changes that were coming thick and fast. Villages were forced to set up schools using English as the language of instruction. The curriculum was set by the provincial government, not by the local church. Increased mechanization uprooted generations of agricultural practices. Looming over all of this was the terrible choice between pacifism or military service for the young men.
The stories in the book are often humorous, showing the dry wit of the villagers; sometimes deeply sad, but always evocative of the life as it was then.
This book is a must read for anyone who grew up with Low German as their mother tongue. It takes a chapter or two to become familiar with the written form of Low German. Jack makes the reading easier by reading part of the book on his web page (in itself this is a measure of the enormity of the changes that have occurred in the past 70 years). I found following along as he reads, soon get you into the right groove. (Find Jack's digital readings from part of his book here.)
Anyone who lived in one of the villages north of Saskatoon, or south Swift Current, or in the reserves in Manitoba will love this book. For the Mennonites who came to Canada later, it will take a bit more effort to read, because the Low German in this book is typical of the Old Colony Mennonites. For those who know no Low German, one of Jack's English books will have to do (there is an English version of this one).
About Reviewer: Jake Ens was born in Neuhorst and spent his younger days there until 12, when his family moved to the city of Saskatoon. Jake attended university and taught school. He is retired now, and still in Saskatoon. Jake says he is mainly known as Carl Ens' youngest brother.