There is the official history of the world, and the land. There is religious history. There is political history. There is geo-political history. Some would even class colonialism, and other epochs of history (Reformation, Enlightenment, and Romanticism). Each human prairie-memoirsmovement and people cling to an official history of what they distill down to be the most important aspects for their legacy. The meta-narratives of history can be boiled down to the local communities’ yore, and then the tales of the people. This is the jurisdiction of family journals, scrap books, photo albums, and if one family is lucky, publishing of a memoir. This is the journey that Margaretha Wilms …and the Meadowlark Sang –Prairie Memoirs- (2011) takes the reader through. It starts with Mennonite Migration to North America, after laying out who Mennonites are, then comes down to her local family unit on the Prairies (when it was still the Northwest Territories).

A tale familiar to many of a family structure to accomplish shared goals, this being farm life, communal meals, shared religious upbringing, tight community with kith and kin. It also shares some of the struggles, what it was like to be in a world shaped by certain points of view. The fun of Crokinole (and yes it is fun, if you make it to Countess ask for a game). The importance of family, chosen and by blood, for that is what a healthy supportive community becomes, a family chosen. Sharing stories of roles that seem antiquated through today’s lens and child rearing that would not be considered but it was her reality that shaped her life.

The joy of Christmas and the arrival of the Eaton’s and Simpsons catalog for ordering  gifts from, and as we have learned through the exploration of the Countess Bible School, a time when the winter Sabbath from the farm would bring different opportunities.

Through it all, she ties to scripture of her heritage, Hebrew Bible prophets and wisdom. The familiar (to the Birds fans) refrain of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 of a time for everything, and the prophet Joel, to a reminder of why sharing our stories matter:

Tell it to your children,
    and let your children tell it to their children,
    and their children to the next generation. (New International Version)

Willms (p.116) shares of the personal renaissance, as she grew in life and moved from shame to embracing of her heritage and who she was as a person. She writes of being a Saskatchewan farm child in the grasshopper infested-dust bowl of farm life of the Dirty Thirties, how her parents modeled values she still holds dear of the intangibles, or as Willms phrased it eternal over material.

Her journey takes her through Prairie Bible Institute and Caronport, as she discerns whom she is. The narrative shifts into the Russian Mennonites who came later to Canada. For Mennonites had enjoyed very good autonomy, and a strong control of the flourmill industry under Tsarist Russia, but between 1917 (Bolshevik Revolution) and 1925 (when the last would try to flee) the tide would turn as they were seen as enemies of the state (p.234-35). These immigrant’s to Canada became known as Russlanders, as only their country of origin was Russia (p.236).

meadowlark-memoir-image-1.jpgCP Rail loved the work ethic of Mennonites that were coming in this later wave, and brought them to the prairies to work (Countess, Gem, Rosemary and Duchess) with each family being given ¼ sections of land originally managed by French Settlers (p.236). Willms’ husband, John was part of this wave of immigration. They were a hearty bunch that built a church in Gem fairly readily, with many choosing to gather in the Clemenceau School in Countess because it was closer in the cluster (p. 237). The influx of Russlander Mennonites doubled the size of Mennonites in Canada and brought 176 new congregations, this is important as the church was the hub of communal life (p.237). In 1924, 8,000 Mennonites came to Canada, and CP Rail negotiated to sponsor another 3, 772 in 1925 (p. 239). Some newcomers found Canada to worldly and wanted to go to Mexico or Paraguay to avoid what they viewed as a “sinful” nation; while others wanted to dive in to Canadian life taking further education, rising in leadership and building a new world (p.238-9).

John’s parents were part of the 1925 wave of immigrants from Russia. By 1926 Stalin had stopped the flow out of the Motherland (p.239). John was born to his parents in Ontario, they went on to settle a farm in Manitoba before finally coming to Countess, AB in an irrigation arrangement with a few other Mennonite settlers (p.240).

John Willms met his wife Margaretha, in Alberta, in the Irrigation District of Countess, part of what is known as the Palliser Triangle the driest patch of land in Canada (p. 241-242). John had remained in the area when his parents had returned to Manitoba.

The irrigation district from Calgary to Medicine Hat was the property of CP Rail, and built to facilitate the railway (p.242). It was tax exempt from 1921 and was to be irrigated but this idea was quashed instead to use a Dam system of the Bow River by Bassano (p.242).  The French settlements were mostly in tact when the Russlander settlers came and moved in. They had originally been settled by Quebecois and Francophones from Eastern USA between 1917-1919 but after years of almost freezing to death, and few crops they left to head east back to Quebec (p.242). This is why CP Rail sought out the Russlanders to make the hamlets viable for their endeavour.

John attended Clemenceau School for his education, it was originally a Francophone school named after a VIP French General (p. 242-3). It was a one-room school house, with a rectory-style house on the same land for the teacher (who was also expected to function as janitor) (p.243).

As we move into the betrothment, wedding, and settlement back into Saskatchewan with Margaretha and John. Teaching around the province, children, staying connected with the family diaspora, the CCF, oh and a nice wrap up as an appendix with the recipes mentioned throughout the book.

It makes one reflect if they were to pause, and write the story of their family, what would it look like?

What is our story?

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