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One would think that a literary community as small as Canada's would only have room for one prominent Mennonite novelist. This title seemed to belong to Rudy Wiebe, so it is surprising--and gratifying--to find Sandra Birdsell laying equal claim. Unlike Wiebe's sweeping takes on Mennonite history, Birdsell uses a very intimate approach in The Russländer, focusing on a few years in the life of a single character. Nearly the entire novel is devoted to the youth of Katherine (Katya) Vogt, a Mennonite girl who grows up in Russia in the tumultuous days of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Katya's father is the overseer on the farm of a prosperous tyrant, and her family occupies an uncomfortable space between the wealth and respectability of the Mennonite elite and the proletarian rage of the Russian peasants. The revolution brings new dangers to Katya's life, when their community is terrorized by a despotic band of anarchists. Eventually, the Vogts make it to Canada, and brief passages reveal an aged Katherine living in Winnipeg and passing her stories on to an earnest young man with a tape recorder.
Birdsell is a meticulous writer, and The Russländer is swamped in intriguing detail. Unfortunately, it only really gets going some 200 pages into the action, when the lives of the Vogts begin to crumble. Birdsell's portrayal of life under the terror of anarchy and political upheaval is riveting and vital, but only persistent readers will be able to enjoy these riches. --Jack Illingworth --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“It is a compassionate, well-developed family story of love, loyalty, faith, hate, loss and betrayal.…It is a story that could be told by any family displaced by war and revolution.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“With her formidable gifts for psychological observation and her uncanny details of daily life a century ago, Birdsell weaves a place as important as any in our literature. By showing how power is often foisted upon us from an outside world, The Russländer illuminates, with an artistic glow of the first rank, the intimate certainty that evil will not dominate kindness, truth, or love.”
–Jury Citation for the Giller Prize
“Entrancing.…Birdsell has outdone herself.…There is a temptation to quote The Russländer in full. It’s that good a novel.”
“Realistic, dramatic, dense.…The Russländer is profound.”
–Quill & Quire (starred review)
“Masterful.…She weaves historical fact and domestic detail into a meticulous portrait of a tightly knit community driven to the brink of existence.…It’s impossible not to see Katya and her family in the faces of the fleeing refugees as world events once again sweep innocent people into a maelstrom.”
“Compelling.…We think not so much of the story as the process of memory and reflection, the ability of language to convey a remembered reality.”
“Birdsell has reached deep for her story, and that of countless immigrants to a new land, and come up with treasure as precious as that silver, two-handled cup that serves as a totem throughout this novel about remembrance and redemption.”
“An important book.…It shows how easily we can destroy our world, but also that we have the ability to rebuild it.”
–Globe and Mail
“I think it’s both beautiful and brave, and very, very moving.”
–Ann Jansen, CBC Radio
“[Birdsell] documents in chilling, unsentimental prose man’s unspeakable capacity for cruelty towards his fellow man.…As relevant as today’s headlines.”
From the Hardcover edition.