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The Mennonite Novel-in-Stories: A Survey

In the production of Mennonite literature in North America since 1962, some of the earliest and best fiction represents the genre that is becoming known as the novel-in-stories. The term refers to a collection of short stories that are unified in ways that create a reading experience commonly expected from a conventional novel. That is, the stories offer an extended, if interrupted, prose narrative focusing on a central character who interacts with others in a complex, realistically depicted society and culture. The main character is gradually revealed to the reader, and/or undergoes personal development that sometimes even leads to self-understanding. Farther along the continuum away from the novel proper are short story cycles, i.e., collections of short stories that lack a linear narrative or central character but are tied together in some way, most often by time and place.

This essay will survey Mennonite authors’ publications and achievements in story collections that tend to resemble novels and also, but more cursorily, collections that show at least some attempt by the author to unify the narratives. All deserve to be studied in detail to identify their unifying elements and the personal, social, moral and philosophical themes that are suggested by that unity.

History of the Novel-in-Stories

Margot Kelley says that, since about 1990, the “intergenre” of the novel-in-stories has become one of “the most widely explored recent developments in North American fction,” practiced mostly by women. She cites Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1980) as one of the earliest recent examples. Indeed, in a two-year period, 2009-11, I clipped seven positive reviews of novels-in-stories from the pages of The New York Times Book Review, although slightly more were by men than by women. However, as the annotated bibliography in Mann indicates (187-206) Naylor’s work was preceded by many other fine collections in the twentieth century. My own favorite is V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959), which Mann does not include.

Of course, the urge to tell many different stories and tie them together in some way is both universal and ancient. Hence, the novel-in-stories is as much a return to literary narratives that preceded the development of the realistic novel as it is, strictly speaking, a true innovation in recent fiction-writing.

In ancient literature this tendency is seen already in Homer’s The Odyssey (c. 800 bce), especially in the central account of Odysseus’ wanderings between Troy and Ithaka. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 ce) is an example from ancient Roman literature. The medieval and Renaissance periods produced Thousand and One Nights in Arabia, Panchatantra in India, Dante’s Divine Comedy (1310-14), Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-53), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Heptameron (1558) and Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-1609). All of these works try to unify their many separate stories by means of a frame-tale, which is also the formula used, essentially, by authors of picaresque novels, the earliest versions of the modern novel.

The rise of the realistic novel tended to displace interest in collections of stories, although nineteenth century literature saw their return to popularity in prose and poetry, as in Irving’s Tales of a Traveller (1824), Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1842-88), Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn (1864) and Morris’s Earthly Paradise (1890).

Today’s novel-in-stories form is usually traced back to Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life, published by Sherwood Anderson in 1919. Anderson’s stories offer a novelistic experience, with a unified setting of time and place, large cast of characters, complex social and cultural details, and a central character George Willard, whose coming-of-age narrative is dynamic and climactic. In the same stream, from a bit earlier, is Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915). Although it lacks a central character, it offers clusters of linked poetic soliloquys by persons from the same community in Illinois.

Mennonite Novels-in-Stories

The six books considered below fulfill most expectations of the genre, offering a sequence in time, at least a disjointed narrative, and one or more dominant characters. Some of the books have not previously been considered novels-in-stories. Some may not have been planned in advance as novels-in-stories by their authors. Some test the limits of the definition. I list them in chronological order of publication, to illustrate the emergence of the genre in recent Mennonite literature.

1977 – Rudy Wiebe, The Blue Mountains of China (McClelland & Stewart). This epic-like narration of Russian Mennonites’ immigrations to Canada and South America is unusual for a novel-in-stories because, instead of focusing on an individual or individuals, it actually shows the coming-of-age of a community, or communities, of Mennonites in North America. Some of the thirteen chapters were published as short stories prior to 1977. Before the term “novel-in-stories” emerged, Andrew Gurr in 1982 called Blue Mountains a “whole book,” meaning a set of short stories with a novelistic coherence. In a letter to me in 1998, Wiebe also used that term. My essay, “The Politics of Rudy Wiebe in The Blue Mountains of China” in The Mennonite Quarterly Review (Oct. 1999, 723-50), articulates some of the unities in the book, especially the successive Reimer generations, who carry Mennonite ideas and experiences from Russia in 1874 to Canada in 1967. George H. Hildebrand, in his dissertation “The Anabaptist Vision of Rudy Wiebe: A Study in Theological Allegories “ (McGill 1982), is more perceptive in articulating the continuing parallels and contrasts of the families that represent the 1870s and the 1920s immigrations.

1984 – Armin Wiebe, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens (Turnstone). This novel is an unusually successful novel-in-stories because its ten stories overtly and persistently depict the coming-of-age of Yasch Siemens in the fictional Manitoba village of Gutental. He evolves from a rather unselfconscious, randy teenager through a sort of accidental marriage into a land-owning pillar of his conservative Anabaptist community. The large gap in time (twelve years) between the penultimate and final stories helps make plausible Yasch’s rather surprising transformation into responsible Mennonite adulthood. Wiebe’s two succeeding books set in Gutental—Murder in Gutental (1991) and The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst (1995) follow conventional, if rather picaresque, novelistic conventions.

1987 – Sandra Birdsell, Agassiz: A Novel in Stories (Turnstone). Birdsell really should precede Armin Wiebe, chronologically, because Agassiz is a combination of her earlier short story collections Night Travellers (1982) and Ladies of the House (1984). Instead of the current subtitle, Birdsell originally referred to her first book as a “novel of stories” (emphasis mine). If Wiebe’s Blue Mountains is an epic account of large Mennonite communities, Birdsell’s 23 stories are an epic account of the history over three generations of a Meti-Mennonite family from the fictional town of Agassiz, Manitoba. The book emphasizes the evolving experiences of daughters Betty, Lureen and Truda (especially Betty) and their children as they move away from their grandparents’ Russian Mennonite identity and faith. Some of the stories were published separately.

1991 – Rosemary Nixon, Mostly Country (NeWest). This underappreciated work depicts life in the fictional village of Wadden, Alberta, which includes inter-related and inter-acting Swiss-Mennonite families—Steckley, Leichty, Yoder, Stoltzfus, Freed--as well as some non-Mennonites. The dominant characters are Rita and Paul, whose stories include a term of teaching in French Africa. Eight of the twelve stories were published separately.

2002 – Stephen Raleigh Byler, Searching for Intruders: A Novel in Stories (Morrow). This is probably the most deliberately, carefully crafted set of stories shaped as a novel. Consisting of two “parts,” it offers eleven stories, each one preceded by a short, cryptic narrative that, linked to others like it, make up a second, separate narrative sequence. The stories are unified by the coming-of-age experience of a college graduate from Reading, Pennsylvania, who, in effect, is still looking for a suitable father-figure. His quest is also a successful search for a meaningful philosophy of life. I expect to develop these ideas in a paper for the Mennonite literature conference at Eastern Mennonite University in April of 2012.

2005 – David Elias, Sunday Afternoon (Coteau). I risk including this book in this list because, instead of a set of stories constituting a novel, it is a sort of novel consistuted of a set of stories. That is, the book opens with conventional exposition, describing a time and place. The climax is a massive lightning strike that disrupts the deceptive calm of a Sunday afternoon in the Mennonite community of Neustadt, Manitoba. However, the book consists of the seemingly unrelated stories of about ten different characters, whose lives are disrupted in different ways by the lightning strike.

Mennonite Linked Short Stories

Other short story collections by Mennonite writers often include attempts to unify the stories, even if not by an over-arching narrative or dominant character/s. For good measure, I include those collections here, along with suggestions regarding their relatively unified effect. Instead of by date of publication, they are grouped by loose categories.

1. Story Cycle. Here I appropriate a loosely defined critical term for my own purposes. Susan Garland Mann uses the term story cycle as an umbrella designation for any set of stories that “implies a principle of organization, a structural scheme for the working out of an idea” (10). I will use the term to refer to collections of short stories that may lack a unifying narrative and a dominant protagonist, but that are unified at least by a single time and place in which various characters live but seldom interact.

Rosemary Nixon in The Cock’s Egg (NeWest 1994) offers ten stories about different single and married expatriates working in service assignments in Zaire. The stories have almost no interconnected characters or incidents, but they share consistent kinds of personal and cross-cultural conflicts experienced by the expatriates. Also, a cock and/or cock’s egg appears in every story, creating an imagistic, symbolic unity.

A similar, earlier collection is Omar Eby’s The Sons of Adam (Herald Press 1970), which depicts the unromanticized experiences and interactions of expatriate missionaries and Muslim nationals at the “Somali Inland Evangelical Mission.” The characters lack “Mennonite names” and one is about an Anglican pastor, but one story is about missionaries who are “nonresistant.” The collection lacks an over-arching narrative and characters are found only in single stories. The book is clearly based on the author’s three years of teaching English in Somalia.

Darcie Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance (Thistledown 2010) consists of stories about three generations of Russian Mennonites living in and near Swift Current, apparently in Alberta, as early as the 1950s. Two stories, “Mennonites Don’t Dance” and “Magpie,” are linked by narrative and characters. Others are linked by family divisions and conflicts, depression and grim atmosphere. The cover image is titled “The Suicide.”

2. Linked Narratives. David Bergen’s first publication, Sitting Opposite My Brother (Turnstone 1993) has two stories with the same characters and setting—the title story and “Where Are You From”—as well as a heavily thematic opening story that establishes the motif of martyr-like suffering for the rest of the book. “The Vote,” which depicts a gathering of Mennonite couples, could have been adapted to include people from the other stories, hence making it more of a novel-in-stories. But Bergen says he included that story only with the urging of his editor and publisher. My essay, “Resolving Dualisms in David Bergen’s Sitting Opposite My Brother” in The Mennonite Quarterly Review (Oct. 2003, pp. 637-46), calls attention to various unifying elements in this set of stories.

Kathleen Arnoldi’s All Things are Labor: Stories (U. of Massachusetts 2007) consists of first-person narratives by a number of young women, including Sandy Ward, Linda Vitale, Jolene and Dottie. However, the voice and narrative that opens and closes the set, and appears sometimes in between, is that of a Mennonite woman, perhaps named Arline Snyder, from Canton, Ohio. She attended a Brethren Church in Canton in the early 1960s and in the final story attends Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship while living as a single mother in a rough part of New York City. Although the subtitle is “Stories,” and fragmented narratives abound, a consistency created by the poetic style, the opaque narratives, and the similar speaking voices creates the feeling of a disjointed novel.

In addition, Sarah Klassen’s The Peony Season (Turnstone 2000) includes two stories linked by a Lithuania setting. David Waltner-Toews’ One Foot in Heaven (Coteau 2005) has two linked stories that evolved into his detective novel set in Indonesia, Fear of Landing (Scottsdale, AZ, 2007). Such linkages illustrate the impulse to enhance the resonance of an individual short story, even if they fall far short of making a novel-in-story.

3. Thematic links. Perhaps all short story collections are “linked” by theme. That is certainly true of Janet Kauffman’s three collections, the titles of which, albeit ambiguous, suggest the motifs and experiences that may relate the stories to each other: Places in the World a Woman Could Walk (Penguin 1981), Obscene Gestures for Women (Knopf 1989), Characters on the Loose (Gray Wolf 1997). The title of Sarah Klassen’s collection A Feast of Longing (Coteau 2010) is also thematically suggestive.

Beth Martin Birky, in her review of Klassen’s collection (MQR, Oct. 2010), finds in those disparate stories a “collective story” of “shared journey . . . shared understanding” by the narrators. The narrators, stories, characters and settings in Klassen’s collection seem too widely different for such consideration. However, searching for that more figurative kind of “collective narrative” in short story collections that are more unified, but fall short of being novels-in-stories, might be a productive way of articulating their novelistic potential.

The Larger Picture

How does one account for so many books of linked short stories?

Since so many are their authors’ first published books, one might suspect that they represent the work of students in university writing programs, who find that they have written a few good stories and, in order to get a book published, write a few more with a pleasing sequence in mind. Such is the case with Sandra Birdsell and her first book, Night Travellers. She says that she intended to write a novel about a man, but “ran out of steam,” hence the first two stories about Betty’s Meti father Maurice. Birdsell wrote three stories about women as a student of Robert Kroetsch, who then encouraged her to write “sister stories.” Turnstone accepted those but asked her to write six more, including stories about their parents. “Stones” was the first story she wrote. “Night Travellers” was the last. To create the published sequence, she said, she laid her stories on the floor and shuffled them into final order, “Stones” becoming the fifth and “Night Travellers” becoming the seventh in the book. In adding the second set, The Ladies of the House, to create Agassiz: A Novel in Stories, she more deliberately created a fine novel-in-stories.

Regarding the “straight-line sort of story telling,” Birdsell said, “to me it’s hard and it’s boring,” although she eventually crafted fine linear, well motivated novels. The work by her and other Mennonite and non-Mennonite writers who self-consciously craft novels-in-stories may represent a new kind of fiction emerging in the era of the much proclaimed, but never fulfilled, prophecy of the “death of the novel.” Or novels-in-stories and linked short story collections may be symptoms of postmodernism in literature, which favors miscellany and contingency over coherence.

It is doubtful that Mennonite writers have produced more novels-in-stories, or distinctive novels-in-stories, compared to writers from other ethnic cultures, e.g., Gloria Naylor, African-American. Even so, it behooves us to think about how the genre might fit within Mennonite literary culture. My good friend, poet Todd Davis, once suggested that the novel-in-stories by Mennonite writers may reflect their immersion in The Holy Bible, which after all is a collection of disparate stories united by an ambiguous Master Narrative. Such speculation may be too ambitious, but it fits Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China amazingly well and represents the kind of thinking that always must be done in interpreting literature by Mennonite writers.

D. Bibliography for the novel-in-stories

Bell, Madison Smart. Narrative Design. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Bell discusses the distinction between “linear” and “modular” design in writing fiction.

Giraldi, William. “The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories.” The Rumpus. May 27, 2011. On line. An up-to-date provocative discussion with many blog responses.

Kelly, Margot. “Gender and Genre: The Case of the Novel in Stories.” In American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Julie Brown. London: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 295-310.

Kennedy, Gerald J. “Towards a Poetics of the Short Story Cycle.” Les Cahiers de la Novelle/Journal of the Short Story in English 11 (Autumn 1988): 9-25.

Lemmon, Dallas M. “The Rovelle, or the Novel of Interrelated Stories: M. Lermontov, G. Keller, S. Anderson.” Diss., Indiana University, 1970.

Mann, Susan Garland. The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion and Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988.

Phillips, William L. “How Sherwood Anderson Wrote Winesburg, Ohio.American Literature 23:1 (March 1951):7-31. (EBSCO fulltext.)

Pratt, Mary Louise. “The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It.” Poetics 10 (February 1981): 175-94.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.