Royden Loewen, professor of history and Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, has composed an important addition to the history of late nineteenth century Mennonite immigration. The group migration of Mennonites from the steppes of southern Russia during the 1870s was a prominent event that garnered a great deal of attention from the federal governments of Canada and the United States, and from railroad companies eager to see farmland developed along their tracks. The public lives of the Mennonites, their tight-knit communities, and their introduction of Turkey Red wheat to the grasslands of North America have been subjected to many studies and are well known. In Hidden Worlds, however, professor Loewen looks beyond the public world of the Mennonites and the idea that they transplanted and maintained a static culture that replicated familiar eastern European folkways in North America. Instead, he argues that the Mennonites were dynamic, creative, and more than willing to adopt new approaches in the face of new realities. "Immigrants," writes Loewen, "chose old, inherited viewpoints, practices, and symbols to make sense of new realities in the North American grasslands."(6)
Loewen's book is not a comprehensive narrative of the 1870s migration. It is a relatively short but detailed analysis of selected topics of the relocation and settlement of Mennonites on the western Plains of America. Thus Hidden Worlds works as an accessible introduction and supplement to Family, Church, and Market and From the Inside Out, Loewen's larger studies of the Mennonites. Over the course of five chapters, Loewen takes his readers on a tour of Mennonite life and how it changed over space and time. He starts with a literary examination of Mennonite diaries from the Ukrainian steppe and how those diary authors had to re-examine their worldview in preparation for the trans-Atlantic migration. Loewen next moves to an analysis of Mennonite inheritance practices and how the custom of "partible" and "bilateral" division of property equally among children of both sexes evolved over time. He covers the rarely examined lives of Mennonite women in the third chapter. The woman's point-of-view has genuinely been a hidden world in Mennonite studies and is one of the more interesting aspects of the migration. The differing way in which Mennonite men, Mennonite women, and outsiders viewed the world around them is a subject worthy of greater study. Loewen's fourth chapter is a comparative examination of two Mennonite farmers in Canada. Cornelius Plett, who migrated to Canada from Ukraine in 1875, and David Bergey, a third-generation Canadian Mennonite descended from the "Pennsylvania Dutch." This chapter finds a common identity even in the midst of complex cultural diversity and external stimuli. The final chapter is a critical overview of recent historical studies of rural immigrant culture in the United States.
Loewen used numerous sources in preparing Hidden Worlds, including diaries, wills, census records, and newspapers. Some of the material has come available only recently, which allowed Loewen to cover ground other historians may have missed. In the end, however, he arrives at two interconnected conclusions. "First, the process of transplantation was often hidden from public view"(103). As Loewen demonstrates throughout the book, the everyday worlds of work, gender relations, child rearing, and imagination were private and not open for public consumption. "Second, the transplantation often succeeded because of the re-envisioning, reshaping, and reinventing that Mennonites undertook in their private, everyday lives"(103). The Mennonites were able to adapt when necessary, but ironically it was the process of adaptation that formed the public, popular image of the Mennonites as static and unchanging.
Loewen's book is brief for what is really a large and expansive topic. It is an academic analysis more than a popular narrative. Therefore, casual readers may find it somewhat frustrating. Nevertheless, it is a welcome and useful addition to the fields of Mennonite and immigration studies. It should point the way to future research.
Gary R. Entz
Assistant Professor of History
McPherson College, Kansas