A dire family mystery, peeled slowly --- layer by layer --- propels the plot of this vibrant coming-of-age story. Irma is just 18 years old when she meets her husband-to-be at a rodeo. Irma's family are Mennonites who are now farming in Mexico, having moved from their home in Canada five years earlier. Ordinarily it would be absolutely forbidden for Irma and her sister Aggie to take their young brothers to anything like a rodeo, but on this day her stern father is away, visiting another Mennonite colony. Irma's mother surprises her by telling her to take the truck and her siblings to the rodeo. Irma is unsure if her mother is pregnant or recovering from a miscarriage; she simply says she must rest.
"A dire family mystery, peeled slowly --- layer by layer --- propels the plot of this vibrant coming-of-age story."
Attending the rodeo gives Irma such a novel feeling of liberty that it inspires her to do something she ordinarily wouldn't even consider. She sees a young Mexican man sitting alone in the stands and decides to introduce herself. Irma and Jorge converse in halting English and Spanish. Irma is suddenly crippled with self-consciousness, worrying that someone might see her speaking with the stranger and report it to her father. Jorge works delivering cars over the U.S. border; his job seems questionable and obviously makes him nervous, but he tells Irma that he refuses to ask any questions about it. Their meeting might have ended differently, but he tells Irma a story about his father that tugs at her emotions. She invites him to meet her late that evening, far out in one of her family farm's fields.
Irma seems to wander aimlessly into her life's situations. Jorge's nighttime visit somehow leads to a proposal she tries, but fails, to turn down. After their brief wedding ceremony, held in the field at night and unattended by anyone other than the bride, groom and justice of the peace, her father slaps her face. Her mother is more sympathetic, but completely ineffectual against her husband, who informs Irma that she and her new husband will live in one of the vacant houses on his land and work for him. Irma and Jorge care for Irma's father's herd of cows. They aren't paid but live rent-free. Jorge comes and goes, eventually leaving for an indeterminate length of time…possibly forever. Meanwhile, Irma's father forbids her to have contact with her family, but Aggie occasionally sneaks over to visit. Irma tells Aggie some things about their life in Canada, before the family abruptly moved to Mexico five years before.
With Jorge gone and only hurried visits from Aggie, Irma is terribly lonely. She resorts to spying on her family at night, watching through their living room window from the roof of their grain shed. With time on her hands, she notices lights in the family's other house, one in which her cousins once lived. She remembers Aggie told her that a movie director and his crew have rented the place in order to make a film about Mennonites. When she meets Diego, the director, he is intrigued that she speaks German (the only language her father allows spoken at home), Spanish and English. He asks her to work for him, translating his Spanish or English directions to the German star of his movie. When Irma accepts the job offer, it is the impetus that will propel her on a journey of discovery that will mature her as she uncovers the truth about herself and the mysterious events in her family's past.
Irma has a unique voice that may take readers who are expecting a more subdued character when they see the word "Mennonite" by surprise. She manages to be both innocently clueless and weirdly wise, with an often irreverent, hilarious take on her life. However, sorrow and shame are an undeniable part of this three-dimensional character's makeup. Readers are likely to be fascinated by glimpses into a little-known community depicted by author Miriam Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite town. Although the plot tends toward the leisurely at times, the underlying mystery adds enough subtle intrigue to keep the momentum steady and the pages turning --- making for mighty fine reading in front of a crackling autumn fireplace.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 6, 2011