Seeking Small Villages in Paul Hiebert’s “Doubting Castle”

I remember the moment I first encountered Paul Hiebert’s Doubting Castle. At the Steinbach MCC, the author name, title, and slender size all made me think this was the book for me! I figured hey, a small autobiography written by a Hiebert with the implication of doubt in the name — yeah, let’s go!
However, it then sat with the rest of my collection for a few years until I recently decided to actually read these books. I began with the Mennonite Starter Kit (I mean come on, it’s right there in the name) and now I figured, hot on the heels of my most recent Heritage Posting article (in issue 101) about the Writers of the West Reserve event in Neubergthal, it was time to pay attention to this slim volume by Paul Hiebert.
True: I have never read Hiebert’s famous satire Sarah Binks, Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan. Shame on me. Someday I will. But being me, I just begin with whatever book I happen to see in the moment, and so I read Doubting Castle.
First thing’s first — this is a “spiritual” autobiography. I’d somehow overlooked that word on the cover. It would seem that after a childhood in the EMB conference, saturated with evangelicalism’s spiritual-this and spiritual-that, the word “spiritual” doesn’t  register with me anymore.
So I was a little taken aback when the book quickly delved into spiritual stuff. I mean, I wanted to know more about his childhood in smalltown southern Manitoba. Particularly because Hiebert was born in 1892. He wrote Doubting Castle in 1976, when he was 84 years old. His childhood memories go back to way before World War I! His recorded memories are from the turn of the previous century!
In case I ever visit Pilot Mound (and, I do want to) I took note of what Hiebert had to say about it: “A bleak little prairie town”.
He goes on to say: “There had been little to call me back… but it was still the place where I had played and gone to my first school… there were the same streets I had plodded on the way to school, there was still the creek on the edge of town… the unchanged railway station… the stone buildings whose slow construction from field boulders we had watched after school, the grain elevators and the churches.” (Fascinating! I want to see those stone buildings which Hiebert watched be built!)
He mentioned being invited to a “confrontation” at the skating rink — like a fundamentalist revival. I haven’t heard of revivals being called confrontations, but it does seem apt.
He notes the churches of Pilot Mound at the turn of the century: “We lived on a corner with the Presbyterian church across the street on one side and the Baptist church on the other. There was a small Anglican Church down the street and in the other direction there was our own Methodist church, which I remember to this day as architecturally ugly.”
They took “Sunday school picnics to a little lake a few miles away.”
He says they sometimes would walk as far as “The Old Mound – a low hill a few miles away which was a glacial hump on the otherwise flat prairie. To a boy with imagination it was a romantic place since it had once been the scene of a battle between opposing tribes of Indians. We would search for arrowheads and pemmican pounders. Once we found a skull and part of an old musket, both of which we carried home with great pride. Children can find romance and adventure anywhere, but I know now that it was as bleak a country physically as it was culturally.”
That mound is interesting to me and I hope to see it yet. And when I do, I’ll remember that author Paul G. Hiebert had spent a childhood playing upon it, and finding artefacts.
He notes that he recalls pioneers talking about arriving from overseas, and he remembers seeing the train chug into town.
Books really can be like time machines.
I appreciate his reflection upon the times before TV (and certainly before cell phones), “Because there were not the distractions of such things as television and organized activities we were dependent upon ourselves, and our imaginations and inventiveness were permitted to develop.” I think he’s 100% right.
Then suddenly he has a chapter called “The Mennonites”. This was probably what really convinced me to purchase the book that day at the MCC. What would Paul Hiebert, born and raised at Pilot Mound, attending a Methodist church, have to say about suddenly being around Mennonites upon his family’s move to Altona?
Only good things, it turns out. I’m not sure which kind of church his parents attended in Altona but I was imagining Sommerfeld for some reason. He noted there was much to admire about the Mennonites. He reminds the reader that this was prior to the American evangelical revivalist influence, when they calmly assumed everyone attending their church was doing just fine spiritually and they sang together beautifully. He found them to be calmer than the Methodists of Pilot Mound. “Much of the ‘peace of God’ was actually theirs,” Hiebert says of the Mennonites of Altona at the beginning of the 20th century. He adds of Altona, “I could tell a great deal about this all-Mennonite town of my boyhood. It was another prairie town and had an amazing charm…  together with the surrounding villages which were transplanted from Southern Russia, some of my fondest recollections are those concerning the churches and the church services because they had a kind of meditative quality about them which suited my temperament.” He later reflected, “The hymns were lovely… of the Reformation… I still cherish those Sunday morning hymns of my Mennonite days as a gift of my ethnic background… all the more perhaps when coupled with the sounds of birds and the smell of new earth and the snow disappearing and the water running and the unhurried greetings of the churchgoers as they made their way to their teams.”
The mention of teams of horses reminds me that he’s talking about a time likely prior to 1910. Again that time machine feeling hits me.
Of Low German, Hiebert says, “I learned it quickly. It is a lovely language, simple and to the point. It has a Dutch base and had come down almost unchanged from the days of the Reformation.”
Again this reminds me I still must learn this language.
Now, I think I have a tendency to only say really glowing things about books. Either that or in total lazy ignorance I tear them apart. So which will it be here?
Well… like I said, the “spiritual” part of the book kinda lost me. And, that’s the point of the book. Throughout my reading, I had a difficult time overlooking the language of a privileged elderly white man born of pioneers. It reminded me a lot of my great uncle Danny’s book, Adventures of a Mennonite, wherein he seeks to share his wisdom and it gets a tad tiresome for me.
I will say that in the reading, it seemed to me like Hiebert was addressing evangelicals in an effort to win them over to the idea of a God of love. So, that’s pretty good.
Here’s what I wished he’d written more of: “I recall as a boy how the earthquake which hit San Francisco in 1906…”
He was writing about remembering 1906!!!! That astounds me. I want more. But there is very little here like that.
I do appreciate his reaction to “the revivalists” (rejecting their ominous warnings of “tomorrow it may be too late”). But I found it interesting to learn of his rejection of existentialism.
I mean, Hiebert seemed to still see God as a “he”, very personal and loving. All of which to me seems pretty evangelical still. I find it difficult to look beyond this language of the 1970s.
I was frustrated in that for all his talk of a personal God, I was disappointed at the lack of personal language. Seems he thought he had risen above this. And then I just think, hey, this was maybe a reading mismatch. He didn’t write this for me, an uneducated female living in the 2020s, long since tired of evangelical language, seeking personal historical narratives.
Near the end Hiebert reflects, “Out of the past came good things also — memories of love and sharing, of sympathy and kindness, of school and Sunday school, of creeks and flowers and fields of grain, the charm of the prairies — I could write a long book about those lovely days.”
But… he didn’t.
Well. I almost feel like this is a challenge to future writers to write it all down. A challenge to all of us to put down our screens. But most of all, it’s a challenge to me to read Sarah Binks for once.