Thursday, May 20, 2010
I am Hutterite
Did you know of a community of people called the Hutterites? Nearly five thousand strong, living in both the United States and Canada?
I didn’t either, until I read I Am Hutterite, by Mary-Ann Kirkby. It was sent to me for review by Thomas Nelson. Kirkby tells the story of her family, lifelong Hutterites, who eventually left the shelter of their colony and struggled to make a life for themselves in the outside world.
Of course I couldn’t resist that.
The main principle governing Hutterite life is the sharing of food and property. Meals are cooked communally – “twenty-five dozen buns and fifteen loaves of bread” for one colony each week. Men meet regularly to discuss major purchases which will be used for everyone’s good.
Like so many things in life, this has positives and negatives. No one goes hungry, but there’s no much chance of a private life either. And one day, the needs of Mary-Ann’s family conflict once too often with the wishes of the colony’s minister.
But the book actually starts with Mary Maendel, the author’s mother, and her marriage to Ronald Dornn. While this wasn’t fast-paced or dramatic, it was fascinating to read because it described the Hutterite mindset, daily life and history in detail. It’s like an adult, German-influenced version of Little House on the Prairie.
One warning, though. If you’re going to try this book, please have some food on hand. I got really peckish after reading about soft cheese sprinkled with caraway seeds and waffles soaked in whiskey.
Mary Dornn’s marriage resulted in seven living children, the youngest of whom was only four when her husband cut his ties with a community where his family was fed and protected but where he had almost no autonomy. For instance, he was denied permission to take a trip to visit his sisters in Ontario.
In 1969 he decided to leave, even knowing that was the most shameful thing a Hutterite could do. He had no money or bank account. He took care of the cows for the colony, keeping records of the livestock, but when he asked for one cow that request was denied too.
His daughter, the book’s author, was nine years old at the time.
Life went from the busy, bustling community to the loneliness of a single family in a dilapidated house, from fresh food to outdated groceries that were cheaper. The family adapted to their first phone, baseball and McDonalds. And Mary-Ann struggled to “transform from a Hutterite nobody to an English somebody” – all the while caught between two very different worlds.
Readers may have a little difficulty telling who’s who and keeping track of all the people involved, and the story isn’t as dramatic as, say, Carolyn Jessop’s Escape. At times it was a little slow-moving, but then I’d come across an anecdote like this:
Hutterite dresses didn’t have pockets, so most of the women used their bras to store small items such as hairpins, safety pins and Kleenex. Esther, Annie reported, carried tea bags and sugar lumps that way too. When an outsider dropped in to see Esther’s husband, she sent one of her children for him and offered the stranger a cup of tea, nonchalantly pulling a tea bag and two sugar lumps from her bosom.
When she asked whether he took cream, the flabbergasted businessman jumped out of his chair and cried, “No thanks!” as he fled the scene.
Worth reading, I’d say.