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went from the busy, bustling community to the loneliness of a single family in a dilapidated house, from fresh food to outdated groceries that were cheaper.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.


Maria Zannini said...

I can't believe I've never heard of Hutterites.

I'm always intrigued by marginal lifestyles.

The excerpt was hilarious too. Maybe it wasn't meant that way, but you could just see the punchline coming.

Thanks for the review.

Denise Covey said...

It's wonderful to come across a book and learn something new and amazing. I'm asking the question - why couldn't the women have pockets on their dresses? Hmm, that is intriguing. I'd be lost. I'm a slouch who likes to walk with my hands in my pockets! Couldn't be a Hutterite!

Marian Perera said...

Apparently there's a Hutterite sect which stresses modesty to the point where men's trousers open along the side rather than in the front.

That way, even if the men forget to fasten them properly, they don't risk exposing anything.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - You'd probably appreciate the parts about living off the land and raising livestock. :)

Plus, the family had to practise serious frugality after leaving the Hutterite colony.

Glad you liked the review!

Victoria Strauss said...

I lived for many years in Poughkeepsie, New York. There's a substantial Hutterite community in the area. There was a nature preserve where my husband and I loved to hike--especially in blueberry season, because there were tons of wild blueberry bushes along the trail. We had to be vigilant about getting out to pick in a timely manner, though, because the Hutterites would turn out in force and strip the bushes clean. After encountering one of these large groups in their odd clothing, I got curious and did some reading. It's an interesting community.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Excellent review! Thank you. I just finished the book myself. Liked most of it, but there were areas that I didn't agree with. I was born and raised in a Hutterite colony...still live in one actually. I have my review of this book posted on my personal blog. Check it out if you can find the'll find there are pockets in Hutterite dresses...ironically the name of my blog is Pebbles in my Pocket!

Marian Perera said...

Hi remnant reminiscences (and try saying that three times fast!),

Thanks for the link! I enjoyed the different perspective and your review of the book.

Victoria - So the distinctive clothing continues to this day? Interesting to know, since that was one of the stringent customs of the colony in the book (and a way to distingush other Hutterite sects).

Mary Witzl said...

I have actually heard of them. My mother taught a Hutterite girl several decades ago. She brought her lunch to school in a brown bag that was recycled until it literally fell apart, came to school in a floor-length skirt, and had to share every tiny treat with her four brothers and sisters (not easy to divide a peppermint). Needless to say, this poor child was tormented endlessly by her classmates.

Barbara Martin said...

Alberta, where I'm from, has several Hutterite colonies. Two are in Beiseker and Crossfield with original members coming from Rosebud.

And there's Mennonites too which have similar traits, although two communities: the Brethern and the Conference are more progressive in what they can use to farm with. A friend's ex-husband was a Mennonite from southern Alberta who had left the family tradition to go to University. He had told her that whenever an old aunt came to visit that they would put the radio and TV in the attic to avoid arguments.

These people live "on the earth but not of it", taking their intrepretation from the Bible literally.

A very interesting community that thrives in the agricultural areas of Ontario and western Canada.

Some years back, I had a couple of horses boarded at a stable in Legal, Alberta where one of the stable hands was an escaped Hutterite from Saskatchewan. Two men from the colony there arrived to pick the young man up and take him back. They found out where he lived because he was sending money home to his mother. He had been hired because of his skill with horses, but that's all he knew how to do.

Eye Shutter to Think said...

I just finished the audiobook version of her story, which was read by the author herself. She is a wonderful reader & I really loved her story, her passion & her family's adventures. I would highly recommend this book!