TIME Canada Arts: Pick of the Week

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Rudy Wiebe, author of more than 20 works and two-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, has fashioned a career writing of Mennonite life in Canada’s west. In fact, many of his books are based on, or inspired by, his own family. His newest, the memoir Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Knopf Canada; 391 pages) delves into his childhood in a remote Saskatchewan community.

In the early 1930s, Wiebe’s Russian Mennonite family fled the terrors of Stalin’s regime to become homesteaders in Canada. One of seven kids, Wiebe describes the labor of clearing trees in the “boreal forest that wraps itself like an immense muffler around the shoulders of North America.” While Wiebe’s recollections tend to ramble and roam, he returns faithfully to the same characters: hard-working Mam and Pah, sickly sis Helen, older and distant brother Dan. Through memories, family sayings, and photographs, he recreates daily life: chores, trips to church, the three-mile trek to the schoolhouse, marriages and deaths, and more chores. It’s not easy living in what he calls “a pioneer community of three hundred people isolated by landscape, language, belief and custom.”

Indeed, much of the life Wiebe portrays could be from centuries ago, not decades. On his first big trip in 1945 to the outside world – Vancouver – he marvels at inside plumbing, chocolate bars and ice cream you don’t have to make yourself. He discovers books other than the Bible and the jaw-dropping invention of nylons. After five months in the big city, he understandably has a great deal of trouble readjusting to life in the forest.

Being Russian Mennonites, the Wiebes didn’t drink or dance; storytelling was the top-billed entertainment. We can almost watch Wiebe grow into an author. He is simultaneously obsessed by with God, sex and fiction—the troika of many great writers. With Of This Earth, he gives us another delightful album of rural Canadian life.