Posts Tagged With: sarah klassen

The Wittenbergs by Sarah Klassen- Should This Have Been A Teen Novel?

         the wittenbergsMia 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

Sarah Klassen

Sarah Klassen

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.

The thrift store that serves as a setting in the novel.

The thrift store that serves as a setting in the novel.

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……..

The Winnipeg Strike

The Flying Bandit

There is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction

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Thin Air Writer’s Festival- 2012

I hadn’t read their books, but now I want to!  David Bergen, Richard Ford, Mike Grandmaison, Sarah Klassen and Carrie Snyder are just a few of the authors I enjoyed at Winnipeg’s annual celebration of writing called Thin Air. The festival is ongoing and I’d love to dip into more of its pleasures but I’ll need to be satisfied with the rich experiences of the four sessions I attended. Each of the writers I heard were promoting new or nearly new books, none of which I’d read. They did their job well, because in most cases I became intrigued enough to want to read their latest work. However I haven’t succumbed to any purchases for myself yet since I bought a raffle ticket which just may win me a basket containing all the books featured at the festival!

Poet Sarah Klassen reading at Thin Air Festival

Sunday night I walked down to the Forks and settled myself on the hard steps of the Oodena amphitheatre. I found a spot where I could lean up against the stone wall. I had brought mitts, a wool toque and two jackets expecting a chilly evening but even after the sun had set it was unexpectedly balmy for an autumn Manitoba night.  Five diverse writers shared their work under the three-quarter moon and in the shadow of the new Human Rights Museum. I admit my favorite was Sarah Klassen. Sarah and I were both writers for a magazine called The Mennonite Mirror  decades ago and recently I ran into her at an MCC thrift store where we are both volunteers. She has a new book of poetry out called Monstrance.

Her poems on Sunday night focused on Winnipeg bridges and experiences connected with them.  I was especially moved by the one about the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge named after a colorful Winnipeg politician affectionately known as The Mayor of the North End. Yet Sarah focused not on Slaw, but on his mother and her journey through life. I also liked her poem about fireworks and the way she compared the various bursts of colorful light to flowers–begonias and birds of paradise.

Chadwich Ginther reads from Thunder Road

 Chadwick Ginther was reading from his book Thunder Road about an unemployed man from Alberta driving to Gimli with a trickster god named Loki.  It was delightfully bizarre to hear science fiction/ fantasy that included places like Lower Fort Garry and the Selkirk Mental Health Centre. 

Tuesday at lunch I was at the Millenium Library to hear photographer  Mike Grandmaison talk about the array of lush and diverse images in Prairie and Beyond. His photos are truly works of art and many look more like paintings than photographs. I have to admit the passage he read from his book seemed a little didactic but Mike’s photos are simply stunning. It’s honestly hard to know how  he could have captured some of his wildlife shots like an owl framed perfectly in the window of an abandoned house

or a trio of ducks in a precise row perched on a rock with their  reflections shimmering in the water below or

two male polar bars sparring with each other.  I will definitely visit the Pixels Gallery where his work is on display. 

Tuesday afternoon saw me at McNally Robinsons to hear Carrie Synder and Cordelia Strube read and discuss their books. Cordelia’s latest book is Milosz. She described how she crafts a novel by taking intriguing bits of news and information from non-fiction writing and somehow connecting them and weaving them into her narrative. She said that “if  you scratch below the surface of anyone you reveal massive dysfunction” and that’s where she finds interesting stories. 

I bought Carrie Synder’s book The Juliet Stories as a gift and had her autograph it. I’m madly trying to read it before I give it away. Her book is about peace activists who relocate their three young children, including their daughter Juliet Friesen to Nicaragua in the 1980’s. Although Carrie said her book is fiction; her own Mennonite parents were peace activists who took Carrie and her siblings to Nicaragua. Carrie went back to Central America with her husband and children to do research for the book. She didn’t let her parents read the novel till it was finished and Carrie loved what her Mom said about the mother character in the book. “I know it’s not me, but I wish it was.”  The host of the Tuesday afternoon event Charlene Diehl made reference to Carrie’s blog Obscure Can Lit Mama and I read several posts with amazement. It so hard for me to find time to blog every day yet Carrie does it while raising four kids, cooking, running  long distances, promoting a novel and writing  free-lance pieces. 

Charlene Diehl, David Bergen and Richard Ford in discussion at Thin Air Writers Festival

Dave Bergen and Richard Ford shared the stage at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre at the Forks on Tuesday night. A glass of wine, some New Bothwell cheese curds and pretzels in the form of alphabet letters got attendees in the right frame of mind for the evening. Both writers began their readings from the first pages of their books which contain attention grabbing events. Bergen’s The Age of Hope opens with a plane crash and Ford’s Canada with a robbery.

I am especially looking forward to reading The Age of Hope since its main character is based on Dave Bergen’s mother-in-law, someone I knew while growing up in Steinbach. During the book discussion in the second half  of the evening I was impressed how familiar Bergen and Ford were with each other’s books. The questions they asked each other were as interesting as the ones versatile hostess Charlene Diehl had prepared.  The theatre was full and long lines of people were waiting to have their books autographed by the authors. 

I entered my name in a draw to win the Bergen and Ford books on Tuesday evening but didn’t win. I hope I fare better with my Thin Air raffle ticket or I just may be buying a whole raft of books in the coming weeks. The draw is on Friday night! I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Categories: Annual Events, Literature, The Forks | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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