From My Bookshelf: “Meditations On A Place & A Way of Life”

I have a problem. I collect books, but I have not yet read all the books I’ve collected. I just like to collect and keep them. I will say that this pandemic situation is allowing me to stay away from the MCC (as I type, the Steinbach location remains closed) and thus my accumulating has ceased for the time being. Let the “reading” commence!

I say “reading” in sarcastic quotation marks like that because I chose a picture book to discuss. It’s pretty exquisite, actually. It was a gift to us by Andrew’s Grandma Bergman. Meditations on a place & a way of life: a book of photographs by Ken Loewen.

As you can see by the cover, this is a West Reserve collection. I mean, I’m pretty sure that’s a housebarn from Neubergthal. However, none of these pictures have locations attached or mentioned anywhere within the book, so really it’s anybody’s guess.

But I’m hoping maybe you can help me identify some of these intriguing locales!

I’d imagine this store has been since torn down. Where was this? (And why do I think it might be Halbstadt?)

In reading the prologue, I’m a little uncomfortable with the rosy reflection as the settlers’ lives being so idealized and “cherished”. I feel like that glosses over many of the issues and problems all wrapped up in that whole thing. Or maybe it’s that I personally don’t really like things that are blindly rosy — rather, I prefer to see the flaws that reality has a tendency to reveal.

But hey, this was just the opening. Let’s dive in a a little deeper.

(The penmanship is fantastic, by the way.)

Where is this?

Okay, now I’ve read a little further, and the intro is pretty good. I should not have been so critical about the little prologue’s cheery outlook, because Margaret Loewen Reimer has composed what appears to be a well-researched, balanced summary of the first few years from a variety of perspectives. This is where we see the story unfold of how the Cree and Ojibway people were bumped from their land, we see the awful hoards of mosquitoes, and learn that the Mennonites were called dirty by the Manitoba Free Press (perhaps because the reporters found the concept of a housebarn to be unclean).

Ken Loewen captured this amazingly. Check out the bowler hat on the fellow operating the machine. (That is a bowler hat, isn’t it?)

Page 18-21 then features rosy, optimistic accounts from Jacob Schantz, suggesting Manitoba didn’t get much snow, the cold is “healthy”, frosts are rare, aaaaaaand the Indigenous population was chill with their land being taken away. (It seems to me that we could’ve maybe questioned the plausibility of anyone being okay with having their land taken away… right?) At the end of the account there is a note remarking, “Schantz’s accounts were not always accurate and the first settlers had much to learn about their new home.” Ya don’t say.

But hey, this is a picture book! Time to talk about the pictures!

There is one full-page photo of a snow-covered field. This is the sight I’ve seen more frequently in my lifetime as a Manitoban. I used to hate it. Now I love it. I love that stark beauty.

Where is this?

The book has many photos that depict life here in Manitoba… interspersed with documents and letters from the time of settlement.

Much of what is included here leans toward telling the Bergthaler settler story, which I haven’t read much of just yet, so much of this is new to me.

This photo by Ken Loewen is just wow.

This book includes many longish snippets of text from various other books which line my bookshelves, which I have not yet read.

I’ve learned that apparently the settlers at the immigration sheds so hated their circumstances that they accused Peters and Wiebe of selling the group to the Americans. Interesting.

Whoaaaaa… Ken Loewen found a wooden grave marker? Does anyone know where this would’ve been?

I also learned that the lumber providers in Winnipeg had expected to sell a lot of building supplies to the Mennonites, and mentioned to William Hespeler that not much had been sold yet, and winter was coming. Hespeler was concerned for the Mennonites so he went to check it out, and found entire villages constructed of sod houses and sarais, using sod and wood from the bush — no need of building materials from Winnipeg. Wow.

This book is kind of haunting. Just in its approach and excavation of the past, combined with Ken Loewen’s beautiful photographs. I’m grateful to Grandma Bergman for gifting this book to us.

Just gorgeous work by Ken Loewen.