Review of Shelterbelts by Jonathan Dyck (Conundrum Press, 2022)
Almost 50 years after Will Eisner explored Jewish ethnic identity in his 1978 pioneering graphic novel A Contract with God, set within the walls of Bronx tenements, Jonathan Dyck has pioneered a Mennonite graphic novel set in the upper Great Plains, in the town of Hespeler, Manitoba, named after the Canadian government agent who coordinated much of the Mennonite immigration and settlement near Winnipeg, beginning in the 1870s. The shelterbelts of the novel’s title are of course another marker of the history of this place on the prairie, and Dyck’s title evokes a central question that runs through his exploration of how Hespeler’s people negotiate their social covenants with one another. Do shelterbelts mark the protective boundaries that nurture coherent community, or do they represent the delimiting judgments of an enclosed community that should be breached?
At the heart of this place, as Dyck’s novel imagines it, there is still the church – or churches, as the novel’s prologue suggests. The novel’s opening panels present young people in a car doing donuts on a Saturday night in the Park Valley Church parking lot, smoking cigarettes, tossing beer cans out the window, then racing away as they see the pastor’s car arrive, with one of them muttering, “I hate that place.” Dyck takes us into the pastor’s study, where he ponders over his sermon for the next morning, and then we follow one of the joy riders as she arrives home, where she chats up her father, another minister of a different church, about the theme of his sermon for the next morning. He gives her a short lesson about the Greek word ekklesia, how it literally means to be “called out” of darkness, but he tells his daughter that he will invite his congregation to be called in to something.
With his prologue, Dyck presents two ministers from two different churches, preparing to offer their best translation of the Word of God. But is the church a sheltering place that calls people into a sense of belonging, or does it set boundaries that drive people out? Throughout the novel’s loosely interconnected stories, a range of characters ponder that question.
In these different vignettes, Dyck presents the encounters of community members in various places, each a location that offers social connection even while it manifests conflict. So, for example, in the aisle of the grocery store the pastor’s kid whose father preached the ekklesia sermon is confronted by a parishioner whose request for help to find the cream of tartar veers into judgment of the young woman’s queer identity and her father’s inclusive message. At the high school, an anti-war activist is astounded to learn that a Mennonite teacher has allowed military recruiters to set up a booth on school grounds on Remembrance Day. A young high school English teacher seeks refuge at a Mennonite farm home in a snowstorm and learns they are leaving their Mennonite church for the new evangelical megachurch, though they insist they will retain their commitment to pacifism – and the teacher recalls that her conscientious objector grandpa did his alternative service at an Indian residential school. Another young Mennonite woman visits her childhood home farm with her partner, who reminds her that his Métis ancestors were displaced from this land by hers. Further complicating her romantic idealization of the home place is the oil pipeline that traverses it, and when she confronts the new owners for violating the sanctity of the land, she learns that it was her own folks, the Peterses, who first granted access to the oil company.
Dyck does not force on these scenes a neat resolution; he does not over-simplify or vilify. Instead, he often presents his characters, especially the younger ones, as yearning to stay attached to their homeplace, yearning to feel called in to this familiar homeplace even as they feel called out to leave it. A young gay man, for example, earnestly wishes to serve as a camp counselor at the Bible camp that proved so formative in his youth, yet he is barred from returning. On the old Peters land, the young woman insists to her Métis partner that she can still find an idyllic place she remembers from her childhood. “I think we can find it,” she tells him. She hopes so. “This place. I feel like I know it.”
In the poignant ending to that story, Dyck presents two panels, both depicting the Métis man and Mennonite woman standing apart on the prairie. First, their bodies turned away from each other, they stare at different points on the horizon; then they pivot to face each other, still apart, wordless, but perhaps now seeing the other again.