Rewriting the Break Event

Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature


Despite the fact that Russian Mennonites began arriving in Canada en masse in the 1870s, Mennonite Canadian literature has been marked by a compulsive retelling of the mass migration of some 20,000 Russian Mennonites to Canada following the collapse of the “Mennonite Commonwealth” in the 1920s. This privileging of a seminal dispersal within the community’s broader history reveals the ways in which the 1920s narrative has come to function as an origin story, or “break event,” for the Russian Mennonites in Canada, serving to affirm a communal identity across national and generational boundaries.

Drawing on recent work in diaspora studies, Rewriting the Break Event offers a historicization of Mennonite literary studies in Canada, followed by close readings of five novels that rewrite the Mennonite break event through specific strains of emphasis, including a religious narrative, ethnic narrative, trauma narrative, and meta-narrative. The result is thoughtful and engaging exploration of the shifting contours of Mennonite collective identity, and an exciting new methodology that promises to resituate the discourse of migrant writing in Canada.


“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

"The stories that remain in the wake of a violence so great it breaks and scatters a community are stories that must be repeated. Robert 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. 'It turns out you can’t write your way out of a communal story.' This vital contribution to Mennonite and minority literary studies shows us why; it will serve writers and readers alike."

Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Pennsylvania State University

“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, 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, 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, The Goose

“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, Great Plains Quarterly

“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

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction: On Rewriting Migration in Canadian Literature
Ch. 1: Mennonite History and/as Literature
Ch. 2: Gelassenheit or Exodus: My Harp Is Turned to Mourning and the Theo-Pedagogical Narrative
Ch. 3: Dreaming das Völklein: Lost in the Steppe and the Narrative of Ethnicity
Ch. 4: The Individual in the Communal Story: The Russländer and the Narrative of Trauma
Ch. 5: The Strain of Diaspora: The Blue Mountains of China and the Meta-Narrative
Conclusion: On Reading Migration in Canadian Literature