Rewriting the Break Event

Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature

Robert Zacharias (Author)

Despite the fact that Russian Mennonites began arriving in Canada en masse in the 1870s, much Canadian Mennonite literature has been characterized by a compulsive telling and retelling of the fall of the Mennonite Commonwealth of the 1920s and its subsequent migration of 20,000 Russian Mennonites to Canada. This privileging of a seminal dispersal, or “break event,” within the broader historic narrative has come to function as a mythological beginning or origin story for the Russian Mennonite community in Canada, and serves as a means of affirming a communal identity across national and generational boundaries.

Drawing on recent work in diaspora studies, Rewriting the Break Event offers close readings of five novels that retell the Mennonite break event through specific narrative strains, including religious narrative (Al Reimer’s My Harp is Turned to Mourning), ethnic narrative (Arnold Dyck’s Lost in the Steppe), trauma narrative (Sandra Birdsell’s The Russländer), and meta-narrative (Rudy Wiebe’s Blue Mountains of China). The result is an exciting new methodology through which to examine not only the shifting contours of Mennonite collective identity but also the discourse of migrant and minoritized writing in Canada.


“While migration and immigration have always been of central importance in Canadian writing, there is hardly any ethnic or religious group in Canada whose fate has been dominated by migration as much as that of the Mennonites. This applies especially to the ‘Russian’ Mennonites, who started out in Frisia and—after settling in Eastern Prussia and Russia (or Ukraine, in modern terms)—finally came to Canada. There have been a few books on Mennonite Canadian writing and on its surprising success, but Robert Zacharias’s Rewriting the Break Event is the best one to date.”

Martin Kuester, Canadian Literature

“Anyone interested in the history, scope, and reception of ‘Mennonite/s Writing’ in Canada must read this book. This timely, comprehensive, and insightful work richly informs our reading of Canadian Mennonite literary texts and offers a comprehensive survey of the emergence of a modern Mennonite collective memory. At the same time, it places Mennonite
literature in the context of Canadian migration fiction, trauma theory, and diaspora studies. A wonderful book from an exciting new voice.”

– Hildi Froese Tiessen, Professor Emerita, Conrad Grebel University College

“Original, thoughtful, and meticulously researched, Rewriting the Break Event raises the critical discourse around Mennonite literature to a new level of theoretical sophistication and demonstrates how a close study of narrative layering within Mennonite literature can offer valuable insights into larger discussions of ethnic literature, diaspora studies, and the construction of multiculturalism.”

– Ann Hostetler, Goshen College, Great Plains Quarterly

“The stories that remain in the wake of a violence so great it breaks and scatters a community are stories that must be repeated. Zacharias traces the shape and function of such crisis narratives in five Canadian novels that recount the destruction of Mennonite colonies in southern Imperial Russia (present-day Ukraine). His judicious study shows how literature can sustain communal memory, construct ethnic identity, and serve or subvert national agendas.”

– Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Pennsylvania State University, author of The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life

“Zacharias mentions that Mennonite literary authors have become the most influential creator/critics of Canadian Mennonite identity. His thorough, unflinching volume proves that the insights of literary critics are likewise indispensable. I hope it will gather the attention it deserves from all corners of the Mennonite world.”

– Susan Guenther Loewen, Toronto School of Theology, The Conrad Grebel Review

“Zacharias’s inspired analysis is grounded equally in Russian Mennonite history and contemporary critical theory. […] An excellent primer for anyone interested in Canadian Mennonite fiction or the history of Russian Mennonites.”

– Andrew Harnish, University of North Dakota, North Dakota Quarterly

“This is a well-researched first book that will especially appeal to scholars of North American Mennonite literature, and Zacharias has begun to pave the way for further considerations of Anabaptism’s contemporary global reach.”

Jenny Kerber, Wilfrid Laurier University, The Goose

About the Author

Robert Zacharias is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo, and a Visiting Scholar with the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the associate editor of the Journal of Mennonite Studies, and co-editor, with Smaro Kamboureli, of Shifting the Ground of Canadian Literary Studies.  Visit Robert’s website.

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