Review: The Wittenbergs, by Sarah Klassen

Sarah Klassen, The Wittenbergs (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2013). Paperback, 404 pages, $21.00.

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them,” writes Barry Lopez. “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” Stories, retold from the past and lived consciously in the present, are the Wittenbergs’ salvation.

I share Sarah Klassen’s Froese ancestors, upon whom she bases her Russian Revolution scenes, but it was the storyline about the Wittenbergs’ genetic disorder that intrigued me most about this first novel. I have two brothers with Fragile X, a developmental delay that affects one in 4,000 boys and one in 6,000 girls but finds its way into few vocabularies and even fewer novels.

The Wittenbergs is a complex tale about GranMarie Wittenberg’s family: her son Joseph, his wife Millicent, and their daughters Alice (who’s just given birth to her second boy with Fragile X) and Mia; and to a lesser extent, GranMarie’s other son Phil and his wife Sue in Toronto (who also have a Fragile X-affected son). Klassen doesn’t shy away from touchy topics: extramarital affairs, addiction, depression, abortion, and dementia. Set in Winnipeg in 1990–91, the Wittenbergs’ unravelling takes place against the backdrop of Gulf War anxieties.

Optimistic Alice has left the Mennonite church for the more charismatic Church of Abundant Hope; she alone believes prayer will protect her from pain. In contrast, her mother Millicent has lived joylessly since her teens; she’s recently turned to the bottles in the basement. The reader feels some sympathy but little admiration for Joseph, a high-school vice-principal driven by ambition and the selfish need to “buffer” himself against the sadness at home through an affair with the new English teacher.

Misunderstood by her sons, GranMarie, in her confusion and insight, her secrets and stories, is as engaging as Hagar Shipley and will stir readers’ empathy for Mennonite elders. Unlike Margaret Laurence’s famous protagonist, GranMarie graciously accepts weakness in herself and others. The connection GranMarie and granddaughter Mia share is remarkable.

The point of view shifts between GranMarie, Joseph, and Millicent but centres on thoughtful Mia. In her last year of high school, Mia faces crises in her family and school that challenge her sense of identity. Will the world “open up” and make a place for her?

Analytical, modest, and filled with longing, Mia is guarded with her parents, best friends, attractive Metis neighbour, and the troubled boy who depends on her. Rarely without a book in her hand or her thoughts, she’s conscious of writing her own story. Her response to bullies and betrayal reveals her courageous side. Mia doesn’t “leap” off the page; she slips inside the reader unobtrusively and will not leave.

As one might expect in a novel by a poet, descriptions are sensual and minimal, never flowery: the way a girl pulls her sheets up to her breasts; the way a woman lets in sunlight to warm a dead body. Poignant images, such as a harvest of dead leaves and a genetic text’s broken spine, fill the pages.

Characters refer to Fragile X as “curse” and “affliction”—a disturbing but authentic reflection of their Mennonite perfectionism and the less-sensitized 1990s setting. Parents reject, avoid, or try to fix their “flawed” children, and people in wheelchairs are resigned to being unemployable or unlovable. But Mia gets the final word on disabilities: at peace with whoever her own future children may be, she treats her nephews as people to be enjoyed. The children with Fragile X don’t appear often, except in the anxious thoughts of others, but whenever Alice’s toddler enters the scene with his repetitions and mispronunciations, he’s endearing.

Unfortunately, The Wittenbergs contains some inaccurate genetics. The family believes Taylor received Fragile X from the Wittenberg side, and they speculate Joseph and Phil inherited the pre-mutation from their father. But since men give sons the Y chromosome, it’s impossible for an X-linked condition to pass from father to son. This educated clan’s ignorance of something that affects them so profoundly decreases their credibility for readers familiar with genetics.

GranMarie’s story from Ukraine, told through Mia’s English project and drawn heavily from Klassen’s mother’s memories, is one of The Wittenbergs’ greatest strengths. Beginning with GranMarie’s grandfather’s search for land in Ukraine in the late nineteenth century and ending with her own passage to Canada on the SS Metagama, GranMarie retells her difficult history: the tsar’s murder, the flight of factory owners, typhus, bandits.

Tales of gypsies, “stones in the heart,” and camel’s- milk remedies have an almost mythical quality. Klassen fans will recognize images—the homemade stool, the cellar of potatoes, the cup of beaten egg at the sanatorium—from her poetry collection Journey to Yalta. A change in font makes these visits to the past easy to spot for those, like me, who want to encounter them over and over.

The in-laws who didn’t grow up Mennonite provide an outsider view of the Wittenbergs’ traditions, which include choral music, Mennonite church attendance, prayer, and a commitment to peacemaking. It’s not the German language or the piroshki that make English Millicent feel she’s on “alien ground,” but the Mennonites’ shared story—and the sad fact that no one asks for hers. Ironically, Millicent’s own renewal happens in a Mennonite thrift shop, and her family’s atonement amid the Soviet Union’s fall.

Despite Mia’s dreams and Alice’s prayers, hope for the Wittenbergs consists in small steps forward, not miracles or storybook endings.

The Wittenbergs may spur readers to ask questions about their own family histories. As Mia says, our stories are the best gifts we have to give.

 

Angeline Schellenberg is a Winnipeg poet whose work has appeared in Prairie Fire, CV2, The New Quarterly, The Society, Geez, the MB Herald, Wordgathering and Rhubarb.