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A story both Mennonite and universal

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Sandra Birdsell is not a "Mennonite writer." But what may be her most critically acclaimed book to date is very much a "Mennonite story." Birdsell’s latest novel, published in Canada in 2001 as The Russlanders and in the United States this year as Katya, is set among Mennonites living in the steppes of Russia in the early 1900s, when the Russian Revolution literally tore apart families, churches and communities.

Birdsell will talk about and read from her writing at Bethel College on Friday, Nov. 19, at 11 a.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium, and at 7:30 p.m. in the Administration Building chapel. Both events are free and open to the public.

Sandra Birdsell was born in Manitoba in 1942 and now lives in Regina, Sask. She did not begin writing fiction until mid-life, publishing her first book at age 40.

Birdsell’s four novels and three short story collections have all been award winners, culminating in The Russlanders being shortlisted for Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.

Birdsell is a first-generation Canadian on the maternal side--her mother emigrated with her Mennonite family from Russia. Birdsell’s father was Métis. She and her nine brothers and sisters weren’t raised in a "Mennonite home." Although she did spend time with Mennonite relatives growing up, and although Mennonite characters appear in her fiction before the publication of The Russlanders, Birdsell says she "didn’t know anything about Mennonites" until she began researching and writing the novel.

One thing she discovered, she says, is that her mother’s unvarying daily habit of sitting down for a 15-minute break with a cup of tea and a bun was the hallowed Russian Mennonite tradition of faspa. She also found the recipes for many of the foods she had known as a child in Russian/German Mennonite cookbooks.

She ended up doing research for seven years, immersing herself in those cookbooks, along with hymnbooks, archived articles and other documents, and traveling to Poland and the Ukraine to see some of this historic Mennonite sites firsthand, before completing The Russlanders.

Birdsell told interviewers for the journal Prairie Fire that Mennonites have written to express appreciation for "the beauty of home life, the incidental domestic details and landscape" found in the novel. Many have told her that the story kindled an interest in their own Russian Mennonite background.

"I didn’t anticipate this happening," she continues. "I assumed Mennonite readers were well aware of their heritage and I wrote with non-Mennonite readers in mind.

"I used the Mennonites’ displacement from Russia to write about what was happening currently. It seemed that every week I would watch on television people running for some border or other, fleeing countries they’d known as their homeland for hundreds of years.

"How did they survive? How does one succeed and not just survive in a new land after having witnessed horrible atrocities? These questions inadvertently set me on the course of discovering my Mennonite heritage."

The Giller jury said of The Russlanders: "[It] evokes with artistic nobility the daily life of a Mennonite community at the beginning of the first World War, a war that tragically consumes their ordinary expectations and their lives in the cheap excesses and banality of murder. With her formidable gift for psychological observation and uncanny details of daily life a century ago, Birdsell weaves a place as important as any in our literature."

Birdsell is currently at work on another novel, Sara and Oliver, scheduled for publication in 2005, which examines the stormy marriage of a Mennonite woman and a Métis man.

She will speak at Bethel College in the morning as part of the regular fall convocation series and in the evening under the auspices of Friends of the Mennonite Library and Archives.

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