Steinbach, that Maudlin Town

“On Main Street; once my street
I just want to say
They did things and do things they don’t do on Broadway”

I just read, and loved, Peter Ralph Friesen’s quietly profound new book, “Dad, God, And Me”

This novel (in many ways) has awakened smeary recollections of my own Steinbach childhood. Unexpectedly, I see stark similarities in our two fathers, although that comment will generate a “Waut?” tidal surge among Steinbachers who knew them both. In my dad’s case, it was more of a generational hand-me-down; something he dispensed with a hip check and then moved on. Or thought he had.

Certainly, the two men had core differences but they both bore the enormous weight of Steinbach in general and Kleine Gemeinde Steinbach in particular. It was, to each man, a stony brook; an overbearing, immovable, and intolerant entity.

In my view, at least.

I see two stoic, driven men—one pious, mild, and somewhat pedantic, the other secular, red-faced, a “man of action”, sometimes to a fault. I also encountered a third shadow presence: Steinbach itself. Looming with Lordly characteristics; a sub-deity.

There’s no place like it… 

Sandburg’s famed city of verse came to mind, also uninvited. The poet describes a place “stormy, husky, and brawling” as compared to my childhood home: Severe, bespectacled, and haughty. Both places feel male, both shod with shit-spackled gumshuh. Both broad-shouldered.

Chicago and Steinbach each have a primal gravitas, an undeniable presence that, like a high slap shot, leaves a mark—sometimes painful.

Adult Steinbach, that is. As kids, I remember our secret underground. Raucously—like the Free French—we chided the powerful, the self-important and the self-righteous behind their backs, schpotting in our hideouts: in the storage bins at “CT’s”, with a beer out at “the pits”, schmeatjing at the sinner’s rink and in the ballpark dug-out. Author Friesen confirms this too, recalling his and his poetic buddy Patrick Friesen’s days as noble infidels. (“Noble” is my word, not Ralph’s.) These two rebelled not with misbehaviour, exactly, but with logic and fearless debate, taking on “murderous literalism” and all those pitching a certainty built upon loose-ends and a fear of hell.

I also enjoyed the author’s many comments concerning his mother.

[…] “her eyes are soft with a deep and wordless sadness.” 

I felt it was a discrete and worthy sub-text. I noted the juxtaposition of her frazzled ham-and-eggs-and-house-full-of-children existence versus the descriptions of all other women in the local vernacular: “Mrs. Peter F. Rempel, Mrs. Jake G. Koop,” etc. Real-life shades of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and that book’s submissive naming convention. Steinbach’s patronymics to the last degree—a practice that attempted through churchy formal-speak to erase a woman’s given name, always seemed to me, as a kid and still, to be evidence of Mennonites “jumping the shark.” Women might as well been forced to address men as, “Your Honour,” and curtsey.  

Somehow, I can’t imagine my rebellious Mercury Cougar-driving mom, in 1968, to succumb. If she did, it would only have been with such an overflowing ladle-full of withering verbal irony that passing pick-up trucks would have been stuck in their Penner Tire tracks as they encountered her sticky sarcasm.

To her credit. I always speculated that my mom, despite her scandalous reputation, was secretly—perhaps guiltily—admired by some of those name-stripped Hausfraus—who regarded themselves as Madam Curie NOT “Mrs. Pierre Curie”.

Altogether, “Dad, God, And Me” is a well-written, thoughtful examination. Forensic, in ways, but never mean-spirited or overly disdainful. Those strong feelings are withheld, but they still add a salty sprinkle of complexity with their just-noticeable absence. It is written with clean text and a forthright style. There are seamless and fluent excursions into German both High and Plaut. The book is built on a firm foundation of self-examination: Candid, telling, and like the prose style, unadorned. I found it, once I adjusted to the cadence, flowing and beautiful.

Near the end, Author Friesen offers a red-hot ember of guilty truth and we are invited to share as he explores with honesty and integrity, as if he is splinta’ noaktijch… When he reveals himself so freely, we know we can believe in him and what he has told us.

Thanks, Ralph! 

P.S.–Alien revivalists do get a little sandpaper, and I was glad for that!