Hard Truths Dragged Into the Light: Eleanor Chornoboy’s “Katarina: Mennonite Girl From Russia”

You know how when you finish reading a book and you feel sad, because you feel like you’re saying good-bye to a good friend? That’s how I feel right now.

Eleanor Hildebrand Chornoboy’s Katarina: Mennonite Girl From Russia is such a book. I became so engrossed in the story, I read it in two days, and now it’s like I’m saying good-bye to a time-traveling friend who’s given me a glimpse of what my great-great-grandparents experienced upon immigration to Canada. As I read the final pages, tears gathered at the corners of my eyes. The book is at one moment peaceful, warm, encouraging, and a few pages later unflinchingly harsh. It is all these things, but it is never static. Much like life itself. Chornoboy has pulled back the curtain of time to reveal difficult stories.

The story begins in a small Mennonite village in South Russia. At first glance, it’s idyllic…everyone seems to have their place in village life; it’s cozy, with family and friends kept close. But even before the news of the upcoming migration to North America breaks, darkness creeps at the edges. Mennonites mistreat their Ukrainian workers. Mennonites refuse to discuss where babies come from, or to talk about sex in any way whatsoever. And although Katarina’s parents have a loving, balanced relationship, many other marriages are far from loving and balanced. A midwife tells of being in homes where moments after the wife delivers her umpteenth child, the husband demands she get up and into the kitchen to feed the men. And though the word “rape” does not cross these pages, it is there in the mysterious stories of some girls whose fathers visit them at night, and the distinct threat that Russian soldiers pose to Mennonite women and girls.

By 1873, the Mennonite colonies of South Russia had become crowded. The government had only allotted the Mennonites a finite amount of land, and it was all taken up. What would they do if they couldn’t farm? What would they do without land? Chornoboy raises the question: was the impetus of the immigration really to avoid military service or was it more economic in nature? Perhaps it was simply the lure of cheap land. Even though the leaders claim the move is for religious reasons, the topic of land factors frequently in their conversations.

I love that Chornoboy goes there. She’s not afraid to venture into the dark, find those hard truths, and drag them out into the light and talk about them frankly. This is a bold book.

The topic of displacement also comes up. Not only did the Mennonites displace Ukrainians on the steppes of South Russia… but once in a new village in Manitoba, Katarina realizes they’ve bumped Indigenous people off their land here too.

Chornoboy’s book takes the reader beyond the simplistic narrative of Mennonite persecution so often seen in our histories and historical fiction. Things are complex. Motivations are mixed. Mennonites are, after all, real people. We empathize with the Mennonites, but we don’t idolize them.

I’ve often tried to imagine how harsh it would be to travel all the way from Ukraine to Manitoba in 1874 — across Europe, across the Atlantic, and halfway across North America, over the period of two months. As I’ve engrossed myself in Russian Mennonite history, I’ve read about all these things before: the muddy banks of the Red River, the Immigration Sheds, the first brutally cold winter, starvation, the harvests of stone, suffering, and the absolute refusal to speak of suffering. And although I’ve been aware, in an abstract sense, of the harsh conditions, I’d been unable until now to really imagine it, to actually picture it in my mind.

Chornoboy’s book is a gift. Her vivid description and the emotional appeal of her characters transported me into my own history, my own story, and I feel for the first time I was able to experience, in a small way at least, what my ancestors went through. As I turned the pages, I desperately wanted things to finally get better for Katarina. The only way I could “save” her…was to read faster. And, while some would say, these stories include “things best left forgotten,” I strongly disagree. These are exactly the stories I want to read. These are the stories we need more of.

Katarina is fictional and, at the same time, she was my guide through the past, through events that actually happened. I’ve seen through her eyes. And when the snow melts, I plan to visit the Pioneer Cemetery here in Steinbach, and see the grave markers from the first winter through new eyes. And I will think of this book, and feel grateful for the personal look into the past that Chornoboy’s book has provided. The past is not dead. The past is right here. The past is me.

(Katarina: Mennonite Girl from Russia is available for purchase at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg.)