Mia is an important character in Sarah Klassen’s new novel The Wittenbergs. Mia is seventeen, loves to write, enjoys long distance runs and has a budding romance with the star of the high school basketball team who happens to be aboriginal. Thoughtful, kind-hearted and principled Mia endears herself to the reader. I liked Mia so much I wished Klassen had told the whole story from her point of view.
Mia would make the perfect heroine for a teen novel. She is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants for her future, but is on this journey of self-discovery amidst difficult circumstances. Her father is an administrator at the high school she attends and he’s having an affair with her English teacher, the one person who affirms Mia as a writer. Mia’s mother is suffering from depression and her grandmother is dying. Her older sister has passed on a defective gene to her two young sons and as a result they are developmentally delayed. Mia may carry that gene too. To complicate things further a good friend of Mia’s is mixed up with drug dealers and wants her to withdraw money from the family bank account to pay them off. Her basketball player boyfriend is ready to have sex but Mia isn’t sure she is. Then there is the older man, a young university professor who is interested in her and professes true love. Should she encourage his affections? All the ingredients are there for a great teen novel as Mia tries to navigate her way through a very rocky turning point in her life
Having said that, hearing the voices of the other members of Mia’s family as the narrative shifts from one point of view to another does add interest and depth to the story. Each member of the family experiences growth and change during the novel and so perhaps we do need to hear things from their perspective in order to appreciate their unique arcs of self-discovery.
Besides shifting from character to character we also shift from the present to the past as Mia interviews her grandmother for a school project and writes stories about her ancestors’ life in Ukraine before and after the political upheaval that forced them to immigrate to Canada.
Sarah Klassen is a former high school teacher and that shows in her realistic descriptions of life in a collegiate- the graduation exercises, classes and assemblies.
Klassen has also been a volunteer at a thrift store and that becomes an important setting for one of the members of the Wittenberg family. Since I also volunteer at the same thrift store as Klassen, I can vouch that she vividly brings to life the atmosphere and personalities of the place. Klassen has traveled in the Ukraine so when the Wittenbergs take a tour there to learn more about their past and to return their grandmothers’ ashes to her childhood home, Klassen does a good job of immersing us in the sights and sounds of Ukraine with her evocative writing. Of course the main setting for the book is the city of Winnipeg and Klassen as a long time city resident does Winnipeg justice with her descriptions of the parks and streets, the Winnipeg Jets and places like The Fort Garry Hotel . The Wittenbergs are Mennonites and most Mennonite novels have rural settings. Klassens’ is one of only a few set in a major city. Klassen also captures Mennonite church services and congregations very authentically as well as the denomination’s uneasiness with more charismatic off shoots.
The ending of the novel by no means neatly resolves every conflict for the Wittenberg family but it was for me at least, a hopeful if not happy conclusion and that always makes me like a book.
Posts about other books set in Winnipeg……..