NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Rudy Wiebe hasn’t been to Kansas in about 20 years, but he is steeped in the prairies that stretch from Oklahoma to northern Alberta.
Wiebe, from Edmonton, Alta., is one of Canada’s most distinguished writers, having won nearly every Canadian literary prize there is. He also happens to be Mennonite and has explored that heritage in both fiction and non-fiction, most recently in Of this Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Knopf Canada, 2006; Good Books, 2007). He will deliver the 56th annual Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College, Oct. 28-30.
Wiebe has been called “the first major Mennonite writer to place his community’s experience in a broader framework.” Other titles among his so-called Mennonite novels include The Blue Mountains of China (McClelland & Stewart, 1970) and Sweeter Than All the World (Knopf Canada, 2001).
However, Wiebe is the author of at least 13 other books of fiction and non-fiction whose common denominator is the Canadian prairies rather than a specific religious community. “I never consciously think of writing a so-called Christian novel,” he said in an interview with Knopf Canada. “I don’t think Albert Camus ever thought of writing an existentialist novel, either. I think of getting at, of building, a story.” His frequently exhibited concern with Native stories, such as in the prize-winning The Temptations of Big Bear, reflects Wiebe’s “feeling that place of birth [is] more important than blood ancestry.
“Those Mennonite villages in Russia are my heritage, but not my world,” he continued. “The world I feel and sense in my bones is the bush of northern Saskatchewan, of prairie Canada.”
Wiebe was born in an isolated farm community about 10 miles from the small town of Fairholme, Sask., in the Speedwell rural school district. His parents had escaped Soviet Russia with five children four years earlier, in 1930, and were part of the last generation of homesteaders to settle the Canadian West.
“My parents and the other settlers did what the Mennonites did when they first came to Kansas [in the 1870s], changing the way people lived on the prairies, from hunting and gathering to farming,” Wiebe said. “It really represented a change of civilization.”
The memoir Of this Earth, which received the 2007 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, a national award, and the 2007 Grant MacEwan Author’s Award, Alberta’s top literary prize, recounts Wiebe’s early childhood in the boreal forest of Saskatchewan, which he describes as “an enormous band of trees between the plains and the tundra.” Wiebe’s first book was the novel Peace Shall Destroy Many (McClelland & Stewart, 1962) set in a small, closed Mennonite community in the Canadian bush and prairie.
Wiebe had won his first prize for fiction in 1956 (for a short story) as a student at the University of Alberta. After earning his B.A., he went to the University of Tübingen, Germany, on a Rotary Fellowship to study literature and theology, and eventually completed his M.A. in creative writing at the University of Alberta. His thesis grew into Peace Shall Destroy Many.
In 1962, Wiebe earned a Bachelor of Theology degree from Mennonite Brethren Bible College (now part of Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Man.) and considered becoming a minister. He was editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald when Peace Shall Destroy Many was published. Many conservative ministers and Mennonites in small towns objected to the novel’s frank and sometimes unflattering portrait of community life. There was considerable opposition to the book, and Wiebe eventually resigned as MB Herald editor.
He then went to Goshen (Ind.) College to teach in the English department from 1963-67. At Goshen, “I encountered men and women of real perception,” Wiebe said in the Knopf Canada interview, “really literate Christians who saw themselves as Jesus’ followers and at the same time were acquainted with the thoughts of others and had brought that kind of understanding to bear on what it means to be a Christian. The best thing that ever happened to me was the meetings we had every two or three weeks in one home or another – seven or eight of us, a psychiatrist, a couple of theologians, a couple of literary people. There were the best theologians there, I think, the Mennonite Church has ever had.”
Peace Shall Destroy Many was the reason for Wiebe’s last visit to Tabor College in Hillsboro, where he lectured in November 1963. Rather than being upset with the novel as were some of their Mennonite Brethren colleagues in Canada, “Tabor was intrigued by the power of the novel and what it took to be a novelist,” Wiebe said. The lecture he gave was later published in The Journal of Church & Society in fall 1965 with the title “The Artist as Witness to and Critic of Society.”
Wiebe has not been to Bethel College since April 1966, when he participated in the Art and Folk Festival by giving the first-ever reading of his short story “Millstones for the Sun’s Day.” Although the story does not appear in any of his collections, it remains in print to this day in Canadian high school literature textbooks as an example of allegory. “The story asks the question: ‘What would happen if one were to take Jesus’ words literally?’,” Wiebe said.
Wiebe was last at Hesston College in the mid-1980s, when he spoke in convocation. He will be at all three colleges the week of Oct. 28.
He will preach in the 9:30 a.m. worship service at Bethel College Mennonite Church on Sunday, Oct. 28. At 7:30 that evening, the first Menno Simons Lecture, “Between the stones and the ocean,” will consist of a viewing and discussion of a documentary film about Wiebe of the same title, in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus. The second Menno Simons Lecture, “Flour and yeast,” is the scheduled Bethel convocation at 11 a.m. Monday, Oct. 29, and the third, “Where the truth lies,” is that evening at 7:30. The final Menno Simons Lecture, “Tracking omniscience: The story as gift,” is Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. All lectures will be in Krehbiel Auditorium and are free and open to the public.
Wiebe will be on the Tabor College campus on Wednesday, Oct. 31, where he will speak in several classes in the morning. In the evening, the public is invited to a gathering at 6:30 in the Tabor College chapel which will include a book signing. Wiebe will visit some classes at Hesston College on Thursday, Nov. 1, as well as speak in chapel at 11 a.m. in Hesston Mennonite Church, which is open to the public.
Wiebe is widely published internationally and has twice received one of Canada’s highest honors, the Governor General’s Literary Award, for The Temptations of Big Bear (McClelland & Stewart, 1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (Random House Canada, 1994). He has written numerous film and television scripts, lectured from Denmark to India and given readings from Adelaide to Puerto Rico to Helsinki.
The John P. and Carolyn Schrag Kaufman family established the Menno Simons Lectureship Endowment to promote research and public lectures by recognized scholars relating to Anabaptist-Mennonite history, thought, life and culture, past and present. Since 1997, the family of William E. and Meta Goering Juhnke has also contributed substantially to the endowment. Both families have their roots in the Moundridge area.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.