This Hidden Thing
CMU Press, 2010
“You’re not wanted…too fresh off the train.” So begins the fictional account of Maria Klassen, newly emigrated from South Russia to Winnipeg in the winter of 1927. From there, we witness Maria’s life as defined by the powerful secret she keeps.
This Hidden Thing is a well-crafted novel. The plot moves unpredictably, the facts woven into the story are accurate – the Mary-Martha home for working girls, the treatment of domestics as second-class citizens – and the style entertains with sparkle: “the acacia trees, chaste as angels in a row,” a letter that sounds “as stiff as Sunday clothes.” Maria’s voice is crisp and controlled, reflecting her character. The style of the writing is unique and engaging, with clear time transitions.
It’s difficult to show an entire life in 327 pages, and at times the author lapses into narrative mode, robbing the story of immediacy. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to Mennonites by birth or by choice, to understand how these people were perceived in Canada, and how they re-created themselves to suit time, place, and conscience.
Author Dora Dueck has written a previous novel, Under the Still Standing Sun, as well as stories for CBC radio and various journals. In This Hidden Thing, she brings the reader into the Mennonite immigrant experience. I am reminded of Tanten and Onkeln in my own family; I remember the bedtime prayer, “Lieber Heiland, mach mich fromm, das ich in den Himmel komm” (Loving Saviour, make me pious, so I will come to heaven).
Every book needs hope, and through Maria, the author offers it: “Blessings were irrational, out of turn…. God somehow managed to be on everyone’s side…. Wasn’t there enormous hope in that?”