________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 18 . . . .May 12, 2006


Almost Eden.

Anita Horrocks.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2006.
284 pp., pbk., $14.99.
ISBN 0-88776-742-7.

Subject Heading:
Mennonites-Juvenile fiction.
Faith-Juvenile fiction.
Maturation (Psychology)-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Pam Klassen-Dueck.

**** /4



“I could’ve danced all night,” I sang. “But I’m a Mennonite.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jillian demanded.

“This is Hopefield, remember?”


“We don’t dance. Dancing is a sin. Right up there with smoking, drinking, playing cards, going to movies, and just about anything else that’s fun. Haven’t you noticed that we don’t have a movie theater in this town even?” Seven churches, but no movie theater.


Twelve-year-old Elsie lives with her parents and two sisters in the Mennonite town of Hopefield, “the capital of nowhere.” When her mother is admitted to Eden, a mental health facility, Elsie blames herself. She struggles to manage her guilt by praying and fasting in order to model her faith after that of Daniel in the Old Testament, with the hope that God will reward her by healing her mother. However, despite her urgent petitions to God, Elsie’s life falls apart as she loses her relationships with her family and friends and gets into trouble with the town police. As a result, she decides that she does not believe in God anymore. Subsequently, Elsie sets out on a quest to save her mother and, along the way, discovers one or two things about God that her staid Mennonite community has never dreamed of.

     Almost Eden is a poignant, yet uplifting, glimpse at teenaged life among a community of Manitoba Mennonites in 1970. As Elsie and her sisters struggle to manage their lives without their mother, every small wish they achieve -- summer jobs, swimming, and restored friendships -- becomes a triumph, particularly in a community that frowns on temporal pleasures.

     Elsie is a moody, funny, sensitive 12-year-old. Her narration is reminiscent of Judy Blume’s Margaret in the classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Elsie, similar to Margaret, has a relationship with God that exists outside of organized religion; however, the focus of Almost Eden shifts slightly: Elsie, self-conscious about her lack of knowledge of her own body, does not want to talk to God about her period (although she desires to have a mentor with whom to have a “schnetke conference” about it). Essentially, she has no one to talk to about anything happening in her life. Embarrassed about her mother’s situation in Eden, she doesn’t tell her friends; they, in turn, stop socializing with her because they do not know what she is hiding from them. She fights with her sisters, especially big sister Beth, who is too much of a “holy roller” for Elsie. Suspended between childhood and adolescence, Elsie becomes frustrated with the adults around her who think they can still hide things from her, although she perceives their agendas even when they switch from English to Plautdietsch, the Mennonite dialect.

     Almost Eden contains a remarkable portrayal of a young girl’s experiences with religion and spirituality. Elsie longs to feel connected to God; she recounts with awe the story of Beth’s baptism, remarking that it “was like she was marrying God.” She frequently evaluates God’s performance, or lack thereof, in her life; however, she does not have the courage to articulate her questions, afraid of how her family and friends might respond to her unorthodox skepticism. Her spiritual uncertainty builds to the scene in which Elsie rediscovers God and feels his presence with her entire body. The narrative in this section is almost unbearably beautiful:

Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.

The sky flowed over. Stars spilled from the Milky Way. There was hardly sky enough to hold all those stars. They were too brilliant almost to bear.

They were so brilliant, it hurt to look at them. It hurt to breathe. I thought my heart might burst.

Glory streams from heaven afar.

The fog and the stars were alive. The night was alive. Pulsing.

     As a result of her experience with God among the stars, Elsie generates her own conclusions about God’s presence in the world and in her life. As well, she gains self-confidence by compelling herself to evaluate situations calmly and to do what she knows is right, including her grand attempt to save her mother from her illness.

     The issue of depression, as portrayed by Horrocks, often remains unexamined in Mennonite circles. Elsie discovers the community’s unwillingness to address the issue when she learns that her mother, Esther, is undergoing shock therapy at Eden. The treatments drain Esther, provoke headaches, and erase her memory. Horrocks describes the setting of Eden truthfully, yet with empathy. Elsie, at first, is horrified by what she sees when she looks into the patients’ eyes: “Then you knew. Then you could see they were mostly dead inside.” She resolves not to return to the facility, particularly when she learns that her mother does not remember who she is, yet she overcomes her fear and anger in order to show her the stars, in an effort to share God’s healing with her.

     Horrocks, who grew up in a Mennonite community, mines the richness of the dialect to its fullest extent in the creation of Elsie’s world. Plautdietsch is earthy and evocative and usually translates into English with hilarious results; as the novel’s adults comment, the meanings are simply “not the same” in another language. For example, Mark asks Elsie, “Come on over once when you have nothing on. When it fits.” He is mortified at how his Plautdietsch thoughts translate into English, much to the delight of the audience (and to Elsie’s irritation). For readers who are unfamiliar with the dialect, the novel includes a glossary of terms, although Horrocks does a fine job of incorporating the meanings of the words and phrases into the context of the story. The resulting narrative mingles humour with its affective content: the audience will sympathize with Elsie’s plight, yet also laugh in response to the joy that Hopefield’s Mennonites take from their wordplay.

     Almost Eden is an evocative representation of rural Mennonite life in the middle of the Cold War. The book is a great pick for anyone who is interested in Mennonite faith and culture. As well, the story will appeal to young female readers who share in Elsie’s wonderings: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? And what exactly are boys really thinking about, anyway?

Highly Recommended.

Pam Klassen-Dueck, who used to speak Plautdietsch, is a graduate student in the English Department at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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