Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood In The Boreal Forest

Paperback | February 6, 2007

byRudy Wiebe

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A beautiful, moving memoir of a boy’s coming of age, infused with a deep love of the land, from one of Canada’s most cherished and acclaimed writers.

In Of This Earth, Rudy Wiebe gives vivid life again to the vanished world of Speedwell, Saskatchewan, an isolated, poplar-forested, mostly Mennonite community – and Rudy’s first home. Too young to do heavy work, Rudy witnessed a way of life that was soon to disappear. And we experience with him the hard labour of clearing the stony, silty bushland; the digging out of precious wells one bucket of dirt at a time; sorrow at the death of a beloved sister; the disorienting searches for grazing cattle in the vast wilderness sloughs and the sweet discovery of the power of reading.

Rare personal photographs (reproduced throughout the book) and the fragile memories of those who are left give shape to the story of Mennonite immigrants building a life in Canada, the growth and decline of the small Speedwell community, the sway of religion, and a young boy’s growing love of the extreme beauty of the aspen forests – as well as how all these elements came to inform his destiny as a writer.

A hymn to a lost place and a distant time, Of This Earth follows the best of memoirs in the tradition of Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning and W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. It is an evocation of the Canadian west that only a writer of Rudy Wiebe’s powers could summon.


From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher

A beautiful, moving memoir of a boy’s coming of age, infused with a deep love of the land, from one of Canada’s most cherished and acclaimed writers.In Of This Earth, Rudy Wiebe gives vivid life again to the vanished world of Speedwell, Saskatchewan, an isolated, poplar-forested, mostly Mennonite community – and Rudy’s first home. Too ...

From the Jacket

“A remarkable insider’s view of Canada’s own Grapes of Wrath-like internal migration during the Dirty Thirties, and the way it transformed a ‘bushyard bumpkin’ into Western Canada’s most iconic novelist. . . .Vigorous . . . vivid. . . .Of This Earth is a wonderful gift to patient readers who delight in remembering times soo lang tridj,...

Rudy Wiebe was born on October 4, 1934, in an isolated farm community of about 250 people in a rugged but lovely region near Fairholme, Saskatchewan. His parents had escaped Soviet Russia with five children in 1930, part of the last generation of homesteaders to settle the Canadian West, and part of a Mennonite history of displacement ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 7.95 × 5.2 × 0.85 inPublished:February 6, 2007Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676977537

ISBN - 13:9780676977530

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Prologue“Nu es et Tiet,” my mother would say in the Russian Mennonite Low German our family always spoke together. Now it is time. And my father would get up to wrap his bare feet in footcloths and pull on his felt boots with rubbers over them, hook his heavy mackinaw and fur cap off the pegs by the door and go outside with the neighbour we were visiting. They would lead Prince and Jerry out of the barn and hitch them to our bobsled and we would drive home to a rhythm of harness bells, always, as I remember it, in blue darkness and covered by blankets and stiff cowhide in the ­sledbox.We are travelling between winter poplars, momentarily open fields, along massive black walls of spruce; the horses feeling in the snow the trail of their own hoofprints home like the narrow path of sky above us, bright heaven sprinkled with light but sometimes, abruptly, flaming out like an exploded sun, a shower of fire and frightening until it swims away into waves fading out in rainbows: there, God lives in such light eternally and so far away I may never get there beyond the stars. Though my mother certainly will, and also, perhaps, my ­father.They are singing. My father’s favourite hymn, which they have carried with them from their Mennonite villages on the steppes of Ukraine and Russia to sing in Saskatchewan’s boreal ­forest:Hier auf Erden bin ich ein Pilger,Und mein Pilgern, und mein Pilgern währt nicht ­lang. . . . Here on earth I am a ­pilgrimAnd my pilgrimage will not be very ­long. . . . In the crystalline cold my mother’s soprano weaves the high notes on “­Pi-­il-­ger” back and forth into my father’s tenor like wind breathing through the leaves of summer aspen. My oldest sister, Tina, is married and my oldest brother, Abe, in Bible school, they are not there, and Dan is standing at the open back of the sledbox, tall and silent; but we four younger siblings are humming inside our layered clothes under the covers, Mary especially because she can already thread alto between Mam and Pah’s voices, make ­three-­part harmony, and if only Dan would open his mouth, as Mary tells him often enough, we could have a family quartet even if Helen and Liz and I are too little for anything yet except ­melody.We are driving home in the boreal forest that wraps itself like an immense muffler around the shoulders of North America; the isolated spot where once my particular life appeared. A physical place in western Canada not difficult to find: north of North Battleford halfway to Meadow Lake, west off Highway 4 where the Saskatchewan Official Highway Map is blank except for tiny blue streams beginning and running in every direction; not a settlement name north of Glaslyn, for ninety kilometres; in the space cornered by Turtle and Stony and Midnight lakes. The ground of whatever I was or would be, root and ­spirit.There, before I could speak any language, I heard Psalm 90, a Prayer of Moses, read aloud, and recited at home and in ­church:Herr, Gott, du bist unsere Zuflucht für und für. . . . Lord, God, you have been our refuge in all generations.Before the mountains were brought forth,or ever you had formed the earth,from everlasting to everlasting you are ­God.All our days pass away under the shadow of your wrath,our years come to an end like a ­sigh.The years of our life are threescore and ten,or perhaps by reason of strength fourscore,yet their span is but toil and trouble,they are soon cut off, and we fly ­away.Threescore and ten years ago my life began on the stony, ­glacier-­haunted earth of western Canada. Seventy years of refuge, under the shadow of wrath. As my mother said, “Now it is time.”–On board MS Dnieper Princess, the Black Sea, October 4, ­20041.HomesteadAn arc of water spouts from a steel kettle. It steams against the darkness under the roof rafters like a curve of light. And a scream. My sister Liz – she is five years old, or six – has stepped into the family washtub too quickly, at the instant Helen, certainly nine, began to pour boiling water into the tepid, slightly scummy bathwater I have just scrambled out of. The boiling water slaps down Liz’s leg, that’s her scream, and with a cry Helen drops the steel kettle to the floor, the water splashes out with the crash, pours over the bumpy boards as the kettle lid rings away and I am screaming ­too.Our mother would have been there in a second. Kettles with long spouts are a dangerous story in our family; even as a baby I knew how in Russia my oldest brother, Abe, at six, ran in from play outside and inexplicably tipped the spout of the kettle boiling on the stove into his mouth for a drink and scalded his tongue and throat almost to the point of death. Steel kettles squatted on every kitchen stove, Russia or Canada, often steaming and dangerous, but they were as necessary as continuous fire in the ­grate.This must have happened on our CPR homestead before I turned three, certainly in summer when we had washtub baths on Saturday evening, though we washed our feet, dirty from running barefoot all day, every night before bed. First I hunkered down in the tin tub used for washing clothes, then my three sisters bathed in the order of their ages, just adding more hot water each time to what had already grown cold around the person washing before. Until Mary, thirteen with curly blond hair, who would sometimes seize the tub by its handle, drag it to the kitchen doorstep and dump it out, she’d rather wash herself in a cup than sit down in everyone else’s Schwienarie, piggish filth!My first memory: water arcing and the length of Liz’s small leg scalded; which is not as dreadful as Abe’s throat, but why are the rafters there? Why would we bathe upstairs in the sleeping loft? Where is Mary? The extremely hot, very heavy kettle would have had to be hoisted up the ladder stairs you needed two hands to clutch and climb – hoisted somehow by Helen who was always sickly, never strong? This should have happened in our ­lean-­to kitchen, as usual, beside the woodstove where Mary would simply swing the kettle around by its handle, off the firebox and tilt it over the ­washtub.But in this, the first undeniable memory of my life, nothing is more fixed than that low, open jaw of roof rafters and three of us screaming. Childhood can only remain what you have not ­forgotten.From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

“A remarkable insider’s view of Canada’s own Grapes of Wrath-like internal migration during the Dirty Thirties, and the way it transformed a ‘bushyard bumpkin’ into Western Canada’s most iconic novelist. . . .Vigorous . . . vivid. . . .Of This Earth is a wonderful gift to patient readers who delight in remembering times soo lang tridj, daut es meist nijch meea soo (so long ago, it is almost no longer so.)”—The Globe and Mail“Wiebe is one of Canada’s most prolific and most esteemed writers. . . . The poetic memoir traces both the growth of a young man and the growth of a writer.”—The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)“When he sets words to image, Cornelius Krieghoff-like masterpieces emerge.”—The Gazette (Montreal)“Wiebe wields the disparate funny, sad and messy facts of his Depression-era rural-Saskatchewan childhood in an engrossing way. He packs in the detail, but keeps the narrative moving. Of This Earth is a fine memoir.”—Winnipeg Free Press“The genius of Wiebe’s writing [is his] ability to take what is a single event in a community’s life, relate it to the world at large, and make it as personal as is possible.”—Calgary Herald“It is safe to predict that Of This Earth will become a classic, and shows Wiebe at his best: clear-eyed, wise and with a writing style that’s as vigorous as it is evocative. . . . This one may well be his masterpiece. . . . There is a profound depth of memory in the book.”—Edmonton Journal (profile)“In Of This Earth, Rudy Wiebe tells the story of his early years in Speedwell, Sask., and he tells it in prose of striking beauty and simplicity. . . . It is a lovely book, and I would not be at all surprised if in years to come it emerges as a classic of growing up in the Canadian West. . . . unforgettable, heartbreaking . . . . Of This Earth may remind the reader . . . of the autobiographies of Tolstoy and Herzen . . . in their mix of the elemental, the serene and the wondrous. Those works are among the masterpieces of autobiography, and Wiebe’s work stands close beside them.”—Edmonton Journal (review)Praise for Sweeter than All the World:• NATIONAL BESTSELLER“One of Canada’s most gifted writers – a peerless delineator of his country’s history and soul.” –Canadian Jewish News “Rudy Wiebe has written his epic. . . . Richly satisfying and worth reading and pondering again and again.” –Kitchener-Waterloo Record“Wiebe succeeds in making [history] dramatic, intriguing, romantic and tragic.” –Calgary HeraldFrom the Hardcover edition.