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Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest

Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest

by Rudy Wiebe

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          Rudy Wiebe has written award-winning fiction for decades. He is recognized as one of Canada's finest literary treasures. Twice he has received Canada's most prestigious prize for fiction writing: The Governor-General's Award (equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Now comes new recognition for Wiebe


          Rudy Wiebe has written award-winning fiction for decades. He is recognized as one of Canada's finest literary treasures. Twice he has received Canada's most prestigious prize for fiction writing: The Governor-General's Award (equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Now comes new recognition for Wiebe's nonfiction writing. His recently released childhood memoir, Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest, has won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction (considered to be the country's most prestigious literary nonfiction prize).           The book holds Rudy's memoirs of growing up through age 12. His immigrant family cut a farm out of stony bushland in remote Saskatchewan. They hand-dug their well, climbed a ladder to their beds under the rafters, farmed with horses, and traveled by sleigh on the frontier. Stories and singing and food from their native Ukraine and Poland held them and filled their bodies and souls. Of This Earth is written with "spare and eloquent prose," say the jurors who chose the book for the Charles Taylor Prize. Wiebe "conveys the riches of a hardscrabble inheritance; a love of words, reading and music, a sustaining yet unsentimental faith, and a bond with the natural world, all of which have provided a compass for his writing life." One of the Taylor-Prize jurors reflected, "Rudy's book haunts you; it stays with you."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A remarkable insider’s view of Canada’s own Grapes of Wrath-like internal migration during the Dirty Thirties, and the way it transformed a ‘bushyard bumpkin’ into Western Canada’s most iconic novelist. . . .Vigorous . . . vivid. . . .Of This Earth is a wonderful gift to patient readers who delight in remembering times soo lang tridj, daut es meist nijch meea soo (so long ago, it is almost no longer so.)”
The Globe and Mail

“Wiebe is one of Canada’s most prolific and most esteemed writers. . . . The poetic memoir traces both the growth of a young man and the growth of a writer.”
The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)

“When he sets words to image, Cornelius Krieghoff-like masterpieces emerge.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“Wiebe wields the disparate funny, sad and messy facts of his Depression-era rural-Saskatchewan childhood in an engrossing way. He packs in the detail, but keeps the narrative moving. Of This Earth is a fine memoir.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“The genius of Wiebe’s writing [is his] ability to take what is a single event in a community’s life, relate it to the world at large, and make it as personal as is possible.”
Calgary Herald

“It is safe to predict that Of This Earth will become a classic, and shows Wiebe at his best: clear-eyed, wise and with a writing style that’s as vigorous as it is evocative. . . . This one may well be his masterpiece. . . . There is a profound depth of memory in the book.”
Edmonton Journal (profile)

“In Of This Earth, Rudy Wiebe tells the story of his early years in Speedwell, Sask., and he tells it in prose of striking beauty and simplicity. . . . It is a lovely book, and I would not be at all surprised if in years to come it emerges as a classic of growing up in the Canadian West. . . . unforgettable, heartbreaking . . . . Of This Earth may remind the reader . . . of the autobiographies of Tolstoy and Herzen . . . in their mix of the elemental, the serene and the wondrous. Those works are among the masterpieces of autobiography, and Wiebe’s work stands close beside them.”
Edmonton Journal (review)

Praise for Sweeter than All the World:


“One of Canada’s most gifted writers – a peerless delineator of his country’s history and soul.”
Canadian Jewish News

“Rudy Wiebe has written his epic. . . . Richly satisfying and worth reading and pondering again and again.”
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“Wiebe succeeds in making [history] dramatic, intriguing, romantic and tragic.”
Calgary Herald

Product Details

Skyhorse Publishing
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5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt


“Nu es et Tiet,” my mother would say in the Russian Mennonite Low German our family always spoke together. Now it is time. And my father would get up to wrap his bare feet in footcloths and pull on his felt boots with rubbers over them, hook his heavy mackinaw and fur cap off the pegs by the door and go outside with the neighbour we were visiting. They would lead Prince and Jerry out of the barn and hitch them to our bobsled and we would drive home to a rhythm of harness bells, always, as I remember it, in blue darkness and covered by blankets and stiff cowhide in the ­sledbox.

We are travelling between winter poplars, momentarily open fields, along massive black walls of spruce; the horses feeling in the snow the trail of their own hoofprints home like the narrow path of sky above us, bright heaven sprinkled with light but sometimes, abruptly, flaming out like an exploded sun, a shower of fire and frightening until it swims away into waves fading out in rainbows: there, God lives in such light eternally and so far away I may never get there beyond the stars. Though my mother certainly will, and also, perhaps, my ­father.

They are singing. My father’s favourite hymn, which they have carried with them from their Mennonite villages on the steppes of Ukraine and Russia to sing in Saskatchewan’s boreal ­forest:

Hier auf Erden bin ich ein Pilger,
Und mein Pilgern, und mein Pilgern währt nicht ­lang. . . .

Here on earth I am a ­pilgrim
And my pilgrimage will not be very ­long. . . .

In the crystalline cold my mother’s soprano weaves the high notes on “­Pi-­il-­ger” back and forth into my father’s tenor like wind breathing through the leaves of summer aspen. My oldest sister, Tina, is married and my oldest brother, Abe, in Bible school, they are not there, and Dan is standing at the open back of the sledbox, tall and silent; but we four younger siblings are humming inside our layered clothes under the covers, Mary especially because she can already thread alto between Mam and Pah’s voices, make ­three-­part harmony, and if only Dan would open his mouth, as Mary tells him often enough, we could have a family quartet even if Helen and Liz and I are too little for anything yet except ­melody.

We are driving home in the boreal forest that wraps itself like an immense muffler around the shoulders of North America; the isolated spot where once my particular life appeared. A physical place in western Canada not difficult to find: north of North Battleford halfway to Meadow Lake, west off Highway 4 where the Saskatchewan Official Highway Map is blank except for tiny blue streams beginning and running in every direction; not a settlement name north of Glaslyn, for ninety kilometres; in the space cornered by Turtle and Stony and Midnight lakes. The ground of whatever I was or would be, root and ­spirit.

There, before I could speak any language, I heard Psalm 90, a Prayer of Moses, read aloud, and recited at home and in ­church:

Herr, Gott, du bist unsere Zuflucht für und für. . . .

Lord, God, you have been our refuge in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth,
from everlasting to everlasting you are ­God.
All our days pass away under the shadow of your wrath,
our years come to an end like a ­sigh.
The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or perhaps by reason of strength fourscore,
yet their span is but toil and trouble,
they are soon cut off, and we fly ­away.

Threescore and ten years ago my life began on the stony, ­glacier-­haunted earth of western Canada. Seventy years of refuge, under the shadow of wrath. As my mother said, “Now it is time.”

–On board MS Dnieper Princess,
the Black Sea, October 4, ­2004



An arc of water spouts from a steel kettle. It steams against the darkness under the roof rafters like a curve of light. And a scream. My sister Liz – she is five years old, or six – has stepped into the family washtub too quickly, at the instant Helen, certainly nine, began to pour boiling water into the tepid, slightly scummy bathwater I have just scrambled out of. The boiling water slaps down Liz’s leg, that’s her scream, and with a cry Helen drops the steel kettle to the floor, the water splashes out with the crash, pours over the bumpy boards as the kettle lid rings away and I am screaming ­too.

Our mother would have been there in a second. Kettles with long spouts are a dangerous story in our family; even as a baby I knew how in Russia my oldest brother, Abe, at six, ran in from play outside and inexplicably tipped the spout of the kettle boiling on the stove into his mouth for a drink and scalded his tongue and throat almost to the point of death. Steel kettles squatted on every kitchen stove, Russia or Canada, often steaming and dangerous, but they were as necessary as continuous fire in the ­grate.

This must have happened on our CPR homestead before I turned three, certainly in summer when we had washtub baths on Saturday evening, though we washed our feet, dirty from running barefoot all day, every night before bed. First I hunkered down in the tin tub used for washing clothes, then my three sisters bathed in the order of their ages, just adding more hot water each time to what had already grown cold around the person washing before. Until Mary, thirteen with curly blond hair, who would sometimes seize the tub by its handle, drag it to the kitchen doorstep and dump it out, she’d rather wash herself in a cup than sit down in everyone else’s Schwienarie, piggish filth!

My first memory: water arcing and the length of Liz’s small leg scalded; which is not as dreadful as Abe’s throat, but why are the rafters there? Why would we bathe upstairs in the sleeping loft? Where is Mary? The extremely hot, very heavy kettle would have had to be hoisted up the ladder stairs you needed two hands to clutch and climb – hoisted somehow by Helen who was always sickly, never strong? This should have happened in our ­lean-­to kitchen, as usual, beside the woodstove where Mary would simply swing the kettle around by its handle, off the firebox and tilt it over the ­washtub.

But in this, the first undeniable memory of my life, nothing is more fixed than that low, open jaw of roof rafters and three of us screaming. Childhood can only remain what you have not ­forgotten.

Meet the Author

Rudy Wiebe was born on October 4, 1934, in an isolated farm community of about 250 people in a rugged but lovely region near Fairholme, Saskatchewan. His parents had escaped Soviet Russia with five children in 1930, part of the last generation of homesteaders to settle the Canadian West, and part of a Mennonite history of displacement and emigration through Europe and Asia to North and South America since the seventeenth century. In 1947 his family gave up their bush farm and moved to Coaldale, Alberta, a town east of Lethbridge peopled largely by Ukrainians, Mennonites, Mormons, and Central Europeans, as well as Japanese, who ended up there during WW II.

Rudy Wiebe read as much as possible from an early age; his first reading materials were the Bible, the Eaton's catalogue and the Free Press Weekly Prairie Farmer; he also recalls listening to his parents’ stories of Russia. By Grade 4, he had read through the two shelves of books available in the one-room schoolhouse. Growing up, he enjoyed Les Miserables, Toilers of the Sea, David Copperfield, Tom Brown's Schooldays, Greek myths and Norse legends. Later an admirer of Faulkner, Márquez, Borges and Tolstoy, Wiebe has always held to the fundamentals of plot, character and, above all, story. He believes stories should begin in the specific and local but expand into “a human truth larger than any individual.”

Wiebe won his first prize for fiction while studying literature at the University of Alberta, where he enrolled in a writing class and began producing poems, plays and stories. His winning story in a Canada-wide contest recounted a young boy’s response to the death of his sister – based on Wiebe’s own experience – and was published in the magazine Liberty in 1956. After earning his B.A., Wiebe left for the ancient University of Tübingen in West Germany on a Rotary Fellowship to study literature and theology, an experience that increased his respect for older and richer communities. Tena Isaak of British Columbia joined him there and they were married. The couple travelled in England, Austria, Switzerland and Italy before returning to Edmonton, where Wiebe completed his M.A. in creative writing. His thesis grew into his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many.

In 1962 Wiebe earned a Bachelor of Theology degree from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College; he considered becoming a minister. He was editor of Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Herald when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published. Many conservative ministers and Mennonites in small towns objected to the novel's frank and at times unflattering portrait of community life, and there was considerable opposition to the book. “I wasn't exactly sacked as editor . . . but the committee came to me and said ‘Ahem.’ I resigned.” The strength of this reaction made him think hard about the power of the written word, and reinforced his sense of wanting to be a writer.

Wiebe then was invited to teach at a Mennonite college in Goshen, an agricultural town in Indiana with a large Mennonite and Amish population, where he would be Assistant Professor of English from 1963 to 1967. Goshen College was a lively and stimulating intellectual community where Wiebe committed himself to writing, study, teaching and travel. “I encountered men and women of real perception . . . really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus's followers and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had brought that kind of understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian. The best thing that ever happened to me was the meetings we had every two or three weeks in one home or another – seven or eight of us, a psychiatrist, a couple of theologians, a couple of literary people. There were the best theologians there, I think, the Mennonite Church has ever had.”

Wiebe published his second novel, First and Vital Candle, and began to explore the western United States and the Mennonite settlements in Paraguay. He returned to Edmonton as a professor in creative writing and English at the University of Alberta, and immersed himself in Canadian literature. He wrote reviews, essays and articles, edited anthologies and was soon established as a major figure in Canadian letters. In 1973, his novel The Temptations of Big Bear won a Governor General's Award. Since then he has continued to win the highest praise for his books of fiction and non-fiction. He has written numerous film and television scripts, lectured internationally from Denmark to India, and given readings from Adelaide to Puerto Rico to Helsinki and Igloolik. For thirty years he taught literature and creative writing at colleges and universities in Canada, the United States and Germany. Now retired from teaching, his former students include such accomplished writers as Myrna Kostash, Aritha van Herk, Thomas Wharton and Katherine Govier.

Wiebe was called the first major Mennonite writer to place his community’s experience in a broader framework. Mennonites assert the fundamental authority of Scripture, especially the New Testament, as a practical guide to life. But while Wiebe imbues his work with a deep moral seriousness, his focus has always been on narrative. “I never consciously think of writing a so-called Christian novel. I don’t think Albert Camus ever thought of writing an existentialist novel, either. I think of getting at, of building, a story.” As a prairie writer, he has often concerned himself with Native stories, feeling place of birth to be more important than blood ancestry. “Those Mennonite villages in Russia are my heritage, but not my world. The world I feel and sense in my bones is the bush of northern Saskatchewan, of prairie Canada.” Native spirituality, with its vital links to the physical world, has always attracted him. But his fiction manages to transcend nationality and locale to explore the struggles of communities and individuals; his books and stories have been translated into nine European languages, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Hindi.

Whatever Wiebe’s focus in a given work, he has always chosen ambitious themes, and his work rewards readers with an intensity seldom rivalled. He is a voice of Canadian fiction that cannot be ignored, and whose work promises to endure.

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