Book Review: I Am Hutterite

I am fascinated by the Hutterites. I always have been, ever since I was a kid. I've always wanted to learn more about them but this was before the internet, before the google, and before I knew a librarian could help me find a book on the topic.

As a child, I dreamed about writing a book about the Hutterites. It was going to be about this girl who was my age (naturally) who was out riding her bike and witnessed a crime. She had to go into the witness protection program (did I get this idea from a movie?) and - you guessed it - the court sent her to a Hutterite colony. The rest of the book would be all about her learning about their culture, which in turn would teach young readers (like me) about them.

Why the Hutterites? My uncle and aunt have a cabin at a lake, and to get to the lake you have to drive past a Hutterite colony. We used to drive past the colony every summer. Maybe this piqued my interest? As a young adult, I once danced with a group of Hutterite teenagers from this colony at an outdoor Leahy concert in the town near the lake. I taught school in that town briefly and one of my jobs was to teach grade 4 one day a week so the teacher could go teach at the Hutterite school. During this three month teaching contract, I lived at my uncle and aunts cabin, so I would drive past the colony twice a day. Another uncle lives in a small town and does business with Hutterites and tells stories sometimes. I see them at the farmer's market. For some reason, I've always been fascinated by their life.

Recently, I read a super interesting book called "The Hutterites in North America" by Rod Janzen and Max Stanton (2010, 400 pages). It was soooooo interesting - exactly the kind of book on Hutterites I needed to read. It explained their history, the difference between the four groups, where they live, how they live, their culture etc: each chapter dealt with a part of their culture, such as education, agriculture, business, governance, gender etc. So interesting. It fully satisfied the curiosity I've been harbouring for decades.

But I read that in June and now it's August.

August 2013 book club genre: nonfiction

So, yeah, I can't use the book I read a couple months ago. But, I've had a book on my shelf about Hutterites for years, just waiting to be read. I picked it up at a Walmart. It's published by Polka Dot Press, the vanity press of the author, who has also published a Hutterite children's book. It's a memoir - billed as "the fascinating true story of a young woman'e journey to reclaim her heritage." Memoirs are nonfiction. Thank you book club for giving me the most excellent excuse to read...

I Am Hutterite
By Mary-Ann Kirkby
208 pages

Kirkby grew up in a Hutterite colony in Manitoba in the 1960s. Though she describes the courtship of her parents, most of the book details what it was like to be a child in the colony. Her retelling is fascinating, and quite idyllic. It was very helpful for me to have already read a book on Hutterites, as Kirkby doesn't go into a ton of background detail. I felt like I already had the background to how Hutterites lived, and Kirkby supplemented that by telling me the story of her childhood. For example, she says what type of group her colony belongs to (and that's it, just the group name, though I suppose the whole book is the description of it), whereas the Janzen and Stanton book describes all four groups and the similarities and differences of each. As such, reading these two books together was a perfect match.

Three quarters of the way through, the author switches directions. When she was about 9 years old, in 1969, her parents decided to leave the colony. In hindsight, reasons for this are alluded to throughout the book. The rest of the book details what it was like for the family to adjust to life on their own, including details about what it was like for the children to go to an "English" school (Hutterites speak a form of high German as well as Huttrisch, which is an old German dialect. They do also learn English at school on the colony, but this is not the predominant language spoken around the colony. Janzen and Stanton taught me that.). I thought this section was a bit rushed. Kirkby previously delved into life on the colony in such detail that it seemed like the last part of the book lacked this level of effort. It was almost like she went from a teenager to a married adult in a chapter, whereas her childhood took up more than a dozen chapters. Perhaps the point was to explain the unknown to the reader (life in the colony), while assuming the readers know what it's like to go to public school, get a first job, learn how to drive and fall in love and get married. I had grown attached to the character and wanted to learn about her entire life, not just the Hutterite part. I suppose that was slightly out of scope.

Overall this book was well written and easily accessible - it certainly wasn't a hard read. This is the first self-published book I've ever read and I thought she did a pretty good job. She certainly has the appropriate knowledge of both an insider's and outsider's view of life in a Hutterite colony. There were also pictures at the start of every chapter, which helped set the scene, especially in terms of Hutterite fashion!

If you are interested in learning more about Hutterites, I would recommend both of these books be read together. Reading the Janzen and Stanton book first will give you the background about life in the colony, and Kirkby's book will tell you a story about what it's like to grow up in as a Hutterite. Both compliment each other very well. If you're only going to read one, stick with the informative volume by Janzen and Stanton, unless you want an easier surface read, then go with Kirkby.

My lifelong dream of learning about Hutterites is complete. It is a fascinating culture and I'm glad I took the time to learn more about their way of life!