Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rudy Wiebe, _Peace Shall Destroy Many_

PROBABLY NORTH AMERICA'S leading Mennonite novelist--not a category that many of us think about, I suppose, any more than we wonder who the leading Presbyterian or Southern Baptist novelist is (Mormons: got to be Evenson, no? He gets my vote, anyway).

Peace Shall Destroy Many is Wiebe's first novel, published in 1962 and set in a small Mennonite settlement in Saskatchewan.  The year is 1944, and the Mennonites, especially their young men, are caught in a conflict between the resist-not-evil teachings of their church and a society that is urging them as sternly as possible to participate in what seems a just and necessary war. Having achieved a measure of prosperity and stability in Canada, is it permissible for the Mennonites to let other Canadians die to preserve their security?

Village patriarch Peter Block, as inflexible as his surname and bearing dark secrets from the old country (the village was founded by Germans-from-Russia, an ethnicity with its own distinct history and identity here in the Great Plains), fiercely maintains that the Mennonites have to maintain their separateness as a community.  Thom Wiens, just now coming of age, has to decide whether to serve his country or abide in his church.

We do not find out explicitly which way he goes--our book club (this was our April selection) was split on the question, actually. I was inclined to think he wound up accepting conscription, but others thought he decided to stay with the Mennonite community, but work to move it out from under Block's thumb and into a stronger relationship with the surrounding society.

This wobble in the denouement may be one of those first-novel kind of issues: descriptions a little too ornate, characters who come onstage with a flourish and then evaporate, Block's becoming much more interesting than Thom ever manages to be. But Peace Shall Destroy Many also has first-novel kinds of virtues: the excitement you sense in the writer in working his experience in the refining fires of his imagination, the revelations of getting inside a community unknown to outsiders, the sense of lives at stake. Weibe's subsequent novels are probably better than this in several ways, but there's a headiness in this one (cf. Look Homeward, Angel) that was probably hard to re-capture later.

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