Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack

Shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region

Whenever I think about literature about Mennonites, I, like most people I’m sure, think of Miriam Toews and her book A Complicated Kindness. When I came across Mennonites Don’t Dance, the debut collection of stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack, I was interested in reading another book by a different author about this piece of the Canadian identity that is really foreign to me as a Maritimer. These stories revolve around the family dynamics of rural Saskatchewan Mennonites, focusing on the differences between generations. While only a few of the stories are actually connected, all of the stories have a real sense of community. As I read the stories, it felt like I was walking down the street from one family to another, sitting in their living room, and watching a brief episode of their lives. I loved this collection of stories. I didn’t really have any expectations either way as this is a debut collection and I hadn’t read any of the stories in journals. All I knew was the cover art was very nice. Darcie Hossack writes with a maturity that is way beyond a first book. Her prose are sparse and punchy but have a poetic quality, the characters are developed quickly and deeply, and the stories vary from short episodes of only a couple pages to longer 40+ page stories that feel like miniature novels.

The highest compliment that I can pay this book is that it reminded me of the best work of Mavis Gallant. Both writers share many qualities in terms of style of writing and treatment of characters. The cast of the stories are developed on a deep level within a couple paragraphs, as they should be in short stories; there are many characters that are very likable and sympathetic but there are also many characters that are very brash and hard to handle, typically the older generation characters in the stories. Hossack is merciless with her characters. Their experiences and hardships are not sugar-coated. There is death. There is suffering. Through it all though the beauty of the prose reveals a mysterious world unknown to many people.

I read a lot of short story collections. 2010 seemed to be the year of the story with a lot of collections receiving high praise. I’d say this is the best of that crowd. The great thing about a collection of stories is that there are multiple sets of characters, multiple plots, multiple opportunities to leave an impression on the reader. My favorite stories in the book are the title story, “Mennonites Don’t Dance”, and the second story, “Ashes”. A lot of these stories will leave you feeling sad, but many will also leave you feeling hopeful. The Praries have produced so many great writers: Laurence, Vanderhaeghe, Toews, and Kroetsch just to name a few; I think with a few more books under her belt, Darcie Friesen Hossack will join this group. Hopefully we don’t have to wait to long for book number 2.

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