Review of Once Removed by Andrew Unger (Turnstone Press, 2020)
As one who is only half Mennonite — a joke that amuses everyone except for my full-Mennonite grandparents — the title of this book instilled me with a certain amount of fear. The phrase “once removed” becomes a source of considerable concern when one is single and attending a Mennonite college. However, Andrew Unger’s Once Removed is aptly named, both for the reference to a particularly amusing scene in which the main character, Timothy Heppner, discovers a familial connection to his wife, Katie, and to the well-known (and well-used) phrase within Mennonite communities around the world. However, deeper than even those two explanations, Unger’s title speaks to a sort of dislocation that becomes a focal point within the story. Since Unger is the founder and CEO since 2016 of The Daily Bonnet, an ideal source for Mennonite satire, it is no wonder that Once Removed artfully blends humor and truth in a candid observation of Mennonite communities in the modern age. Dislocation indeed.
Tim Heppner, resident of Edenfield, Manitoba, works as a ghostwriter of mostly family genealogies for members of his predominantly Mennonite community. He lives with his charmingly academic, activist wife, Katie, shares a profession with his best friend Randall, and, like many Edenfeld locals, holds a general (though passive) disdain for the mayor’s plans for an Edenfeld strip mall. However, financial issues arise for the Heppners. Tim finds himself at a crossroads when his role as a member of the Edenfeld Preservation Society comes into conflict with his role as a member of the Parks and Recreation department under progressive mayor BLT Wiens. In the middle of warring obligations and under the threat of “persecution” at the hands of BLT and the other city employees, Tim is forced to make a choice between remaining passive entirely or passively working to preserve what little Mennonite history still remains in Edenfeld.
As a whole, Once Removed is suited to entertain a variety of Anabaptist audiences. While Unger specifically acknowledges that the book itself is entirely a work of fiction, it is abundantly clear that the content was inspired by every rural Mennonite settlement turned town. Immersing myself into the text was like stepping into an over-dramatized version of Goessel, Hesston or Hillsboro (all in Kansas), with particular emphasis on church culture and the status of plautdietsch in the community, as well as the role of the local diner/coffee shop as a popular meeting place. I could hear my grandfather in every client of Tim’s who played on Mennonite names like Harder by naming their genealogy Working Hard and Praying Harder: Life on the Farm, or something to that effect. As a result, the charm is endless, and so is the humor… once you understand it.
In the weaknesses, the target audience is easily identified. If you never grew up in a small Mennonite community, or were never associated with one, you might find yourself actually believing some of the more ridiculous aspects of the story. Likewise, if you’ve never read (or heard of) The Daily Bonnet, you may also not understand Unger’s particular penchant for all things pun. The story is full of Daily Bonnet-esque humor and content that could be better consumed in small doses. Additionally, at one point, I read an entire chapter out loud to one of my roommates and she was quick to acknowledge the fact that many obscure references are made, most of which will leave a lot of readers (even those who consider themselves Mennonite) consulting Google.
I think a balance between humor and meaningful content, or even a slightly shorter text would have suited just fine. I didn’t have a lot of emotional investment in the main character, Timothy Heppner. It was difficult for me to understand why he and Katie — if they were truly as rebellious as they were made out to be — stayed in Edenfeld, later Pretty Plain. It is obvious that Altfeld, Katie’s home town, has a lot of what they used to admire about Edenfeld and I found myself rooting for the big move… that never happened. While it’s clear that sentimental attachment and loyalty contributed to their stay, it’s not convincing enough. And yet, I feel that the enthusiasm in satire could be funneled a wee bit into Timothy himself.
Despite some of its shortcomings, Once Removed is incredibly heartwarming. Buried beneath the satire (that often makes you laugh out loud), obscure references and Mennonite jargon (and the general fictiveness of the story), the idea of “progress” and its effectiveness is called into question. BLT’s transformative endeavors for the town of Edenfeld (Pretty Plain) are beyond ridiculous in that it is in support of the very thing that often puts small towns under: strip malls and overdeveloped areas. While it is not explicitly stated, BLT and his bureaucratic cronies are the enemies of culture and history, going so far as to threaten those simply trying to preserve their family history via ghostwriting. The questions readers have to ask themselves are: “What does extreme progressivism do to a community? Is there a balance that can be struck between looking toward the future and preserving the past?” The novel, in this respect, cleverly brings up these serious issues as modernization carefully and quickly replaces tradition in many Mennonite and Anabaptist communities — the preservation of which is often left up to folks like the Heppners.
Thus, the title of Once Removed and its content deliver a mix of satire with underlying messages that speak to the relevance of small communities in their efforts to preserve history. Since familial, cultural and religious history speaks most profoundly to Mennonites, this book conveys the constant struggle between those trying to preserve their identity and those seeking progress. The rebellion of individuals like Timothy, Katie and the rest of Preservation Society speaks to those who struggle against obstinate city organizers and the “modernizing youth” within congregations. Ultimately, it is a call of relatability to those who are losing the tradition and culture of their youth and history; and perhaps it is also a way in which change and tradition can be reconciled within communities.