Generally, memoirs are deemed different from autobiographies in that memoirs hone in on one theme, one aspect of the writer’s life. And that’s exactly what Mary-Ann Kirkby has done. She tells her life story --- up through grade 12 with a brief epilogue --- always as it relates to her Hutterite heritage and upbringing. Hutterite? Similar to Amish or Mennonite, but not. Hutterites live in colonies, where property is owned communally, meals are eaten in dining rooms, and adults work not for personal wages but for the well-being of all.
Mary-Ann grew up in the 1960s on a Hutterite colony in Manitoba, a childhood filled with contrasts and contradictions: great freedom within a tight structure; abundant feasting within a predictable menu; keen humor alongside sobering severity; school lessons taught in English (by an outsider who wore heels and hosiery) although the community spoke its German dialect (and wore long, plain clothing uniform in style if not color); and a strong sense of household family --- mother Mary, father Ron, and six siblings --- as an element of the larger group of more than 100.
Then when she was 10, her parents quickly (or so it seemed to the child) moved away, to a fix-up rental farmhouse. Chapter 9 begins: “The summer of 1969 was the loneliest summer of our lives…The social and physical structure that had given order and purpose to our lives had been ripped out from under us.” The reader is not as surprised by the family’s break as was the child. In the first eight chapters, Kirkby includes information she has learned as an adult; she frames out the dastardly political plays that prompted her father, Ron, to bolt. For starters, the main-man minister (Mary-Ann’s mother’s brother) had disapproved of young Ron (originally from a different colony) marrying his sister. As presented, the animosity and pigheadedness, even interfering with access to medical care for Ron’s children, understandably led to a man saying “I’m out of here.”
The last chapters of the book relate the family’s adjustment to “English” life. This meant years of just-scraping-by poverty before her parents eventually could buy and manage their own farm. It involved painful and humiliating acculturation into a public school. “We didn’t know how to swim or skate or ride a bicycle. We had never tasted pizza, macaroni and cheese, or a banana split.” As for school lunches, “We were complete sandwich novices.” As you would expect, “The ringlets and hot pants wanted little or nothing to do with us.” A great schoolyard triumph comes when long-skirted Mary-Ann and her siblings take on the entire school in a ball game and win: score 40 to 0.
Even these later chapters continually revolve around comparisons to the Hutterite life. As an adult, Mary-Ann turned to a profession of news reporter, a career suggested by her father. In her role as a news anchor, reporter and journalist, she is known for her adroit ability to relate a good story. This talent is evident in her writing; it takes a gifted storyteller to maneuver in and out of flashbacks as frequently and deftly as she does.
I AM HUTTERITE is an interesting look into a culture that is so close and yet so distant. It’s a warm testimony to parents who lived by conviction and by faith. It’s a book about forgiveness and reclaiming the best of one’s heritage. I look forward to reading more from Mary-Ann Kirkby.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on November 13, 2011