Al Reimer, May 30, 1927 – December 22, 2015

Al Reimer grew up in the Steinbach of the 1930s and 40s, a town of industrious folk, mistrustful of books that were not the Bible or expanded evangelistic tracts . . . but as a young boy he swiftly became lost in words, in fictions. For these he had to go no further than his father’s bookshelves.

His father was Peter J. B. Reimer, a teacher and later a minister in the Kleine Gemeinde, and an ambitious man. This, in itself, was not a problem in Steinbach — where all kinds of strong personalities were busy building business empires even in the improbable economic environment of the Great Depression – but “P. J. B.”  was ambitious in the wrong way for his time and place; he aspired to higher education and recognition as a man of letters.

Al’s mother, meanwhile, of the “Berliner” Kehler clan outside of Steinbach’s borders, “regarded serious reading as a black art that tended to corrupt people,” as he says in a wonderfully descriptive and emotional autobiographical essay published in 1988.[1]

So there he was, in his “mad” teenage years, a prisoner of the narrow-minded Mennonite backwater town, with a too-proud Prussian-style father and a humorous, earthy mother—a product, like Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, of two contradictory influences, wanting desperately to escape.

I had little knowledge of any of this when I came to know him as a student at United College, soon to be the University of Winnipeg, in the mid-60s. I too was from Steinbach. His father and mine had been long-time friends and fellow ministers. I was honoured, along with my friend the poet Patrick Friesen, to be invited to evening gatherings where Al and my German professor Jack Thiessen and economist Roy Vogt and broadcaster Eric Friesen would gather for wine (!) and conversation about being Mennonite in a secular world.

In September, 1971, Roy Vogt published the first edition of The Mennonite Mirror. Al contributed a penetrating analysis of Rudy Wiebe’s fiction, one of his first efforts at what would prove to be a pioneering and monumental contribution to Canadian Mennonite literature, a genre which hardly even existed at the time. In the next two issues, Al described his pilgrimage to Russia, which, as it turned out, was a turning point in his life, a conversion of a kind. The adolescent who had re-invented himself into someone who could “pass for white,” as he put it, was embraced, literally, by a Russian Mennonite woman who mistook him for her nephew. When he pointed out her error she laughed and told him it made no difference. And it didn’t; he was embraced by the culture and faith he had rejected, and he returned the embrace, writing criticism, translating, editing, and fiction of his own, and editing the Mirror for 9 years, from 1978 to 1987.

When I visited him in his (predictably) book-lined study in Winnipeg in the mid-2000s, to interview him for the history of Steinbach I was writing, he generously lent me several books, which I never returned. He didn’t seem in a hurry for them. Too late now. But Al, thanks. You made the broadest, farthest-ranging contribution to Canadian Mennonite literature of anyone.

[1] “Coming in Out of the Cold,” in Why I am a Mennonite, edited by Harry Loewen (Kitchener: Herald Press, 1988).