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Recovering a Heritage
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Mary-Ann Kirkby
I Am Hutterite (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2010.  247p.)

Also available as an Audiobook

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The author's name Mary-Ann Kirkby is her married name, and underlying it is an important part of her ethnic heritage.  The book reveals details of this heritage as we are allowed to step into the story of her personal reflections and search through her memories.  On a visit back to the colony, the author's 10-year-old son asked her if she was a Hutterite.  This led to her collecting these reflections for her son.  Now we have them too.

In July 2010 I received the book from the publisher through Amazon as a Preview Review Copy, though I later saw it carried the release date of May 4, 2010.  I chose this title because of its culture focus on an important, though small, segment of our diverse North American cultural treasure.  The book arises as an extended response to a question from her son about her origins.

Kirkby had not lived in a Hutterite colony since she was about 10 years old.  Born Marianne Dornn, she became a member of a family of this Anabaptist sect in Manitoba.  Kirkby's father Reinhold (or the English Ronald, which she uses more commonly) was an unconventional, but very devout Hutterite.

Her mother's family, the Maendels, were prominent leaders of the Hutterites, with members in several colonies.  Her mother's brother Jake was the leader of the colony where they lived for the bulk of the colony experience.  The colony leader is chosen by the community and serves for life, working with a council composed of some of the men of the colony.

The Dornns were respected and loved by the colony, but Ronald's management skills and concerns about the poor leadership of Jake Maendel led to a final break, when the Dornns launched out on their own, after years of close communal living.  It is a serious matter to oppose or accuse the colony leader, and Reinhold could not take it anymore.

The Hutterites are from German heritage, and still speak the old form of German language the community has retained, now called simply Huetterisch, or Hutterite.  Some families actually came to North America from Russia, where many Germans, including Mennonites and Lutherans, had moved over the centuries.

The Hutterites live in communal farms, with a common kitchen and assigned duties to make the farm work to support everyone and provide commercial income from eggs, milk and other farm products.  There are several colonies in the Western Provinces of Canada and the US northwest.

They maintain a simple, unadorned life, based on agriculture and self-sufficiency of the communal colony.  They have some affinity with Mennonites, and Mary-Ann tells of some of their joint events, like gospel song fests, with songs in English and German.  Hutterites are concerned to maintain holiness, which involves avoiding the worldly ways of the English outside world.

Among more serious concerns, worldliness includes men wearing pants with back pockets.  It is unseemly for women's clothing to have any pockets at all.  No makeup is allowed either, though the younger Hutterite generation push the limits.  Discipline is up to the leader and council, but there is likewise a general sense of tolerance for self-discovery.

An initial expression of her parents' unconventional attitude showed up in her name, originally Marianne.  This was too English for the family, and she came to be called Ann-Marie, a more common German name.  The author reclaimed her original name with the more German spelling as used in her byline for this book.

I was fascinated by the generous positive descriptions of Hutterite life, belief and practice.  I was unaware of this sect of Anabaptists.  I especially enjoyed the samples of Hutterite language, immediately conveyed in English for us underprivileged English readers.  Her dialogue and descriptions bring to life the events and situations of colony life over her early years.

As the story developed, the strictures and limited vision of leadership led various families to leave their several colonies and move out into the "English" world.  The overall population of the Hutterite ethnic communities is said to be about 45,000.  It appears they will continue to diminish in population give the current pattern of dissent.

Family Ties
One thing I appreciated, however, about the community dynamic was the ongoing acceptance of family members who had left the colony to live on their own in the broader world.  The Dornn family continued returning for visits to their home colony and others where they had kinfolks.

I think you will find this a rewarding volume of personal family reflection that honors and retains the deep faith devotion that constitutes the core ethos of the Hutterites.  Kirkby includes her positive acceptance and participation in the broader modern-day world, also.  I commend the author for sharing this heritage and important part of today's North American mosaic with us, her North American neighbours.

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Reviewed on Amazon and Thoughts and Resources 16 August 2010
Revised 30 November 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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