In the 500 years of Mennonite history, no time is perhaps more abounding in human drama than the period during and immediately following World War I. The idyllic world of the Mennonites in South Russia crumbled as the forces of war, revolution, and anarchy swirled around them.
It is this period that Janice Dick explores in Eye of the Storm, a sequel to her 2002 novel, Calm Before the Storm. As with the first installment, Eye of the Storm focuses primarily on the lives of three young people: Paul Gregorovich Tekanin, Johann Sudermann, and Katarina Hildebrandt.
A small portion of the novel examines the non-Mennonite Russian world, mainly through the character of Paul Tekanin. In the beginning we see Paul as a reluctant member of the growing Bolshevik movement. Along with his friend Grisha, Paul seeks to anticipate the rapidly changing political climate as the fall of the Czar gives way to the rise of Lenin. Grisha soon becomes fed up with the Communist movement, but Paul stays on, becoming a member of various Red Army units and participating in acts of violence throughout the country.
Despite the various vignettes addressing Paul's development, the focus of the novel is on the Mennonite world of South Russia and the lives of Johann Sudermann and Katarina Hildebrandt, as well as others associated with the Hildebrandt family. As the novel opens, Johann, a medic in the Forestry Service Medical Corp, struggles to find his place between his duty to his unit and his love for his fiancé, Katarina, the daughter of a wealthy Mennonite landowner. The violence he has witnessed in war provides a stark contrast to the peaceful world of the Mennonites, who, for a time, are certainly living in the eerie calm of a surrounding storm.
With Johann and Katarina's wedding and the eventual disbanding of the medical unit, Johann's choice seems to have been made. However, throughout the novel, Johann, along with many other Mennonite characters, are forced to choose repeatedly between personal security and selfless service. The year is 1917, and all the Mennonites of the Ukraine are attempting to understand their roles in an abruptly changing world. Should they turn inward and protect themselves and their interests? Or should they continue to act out their faith in a precarious world?
Part of this debate includes Mennonite involvement in the controversial Selbstschutz. Although the self-defense force provides a temporary sense of protection from Machnov and his bandits, Dick makes it clear that by bearing arms the Mennonites not only have caused greater eventual hardships but also have turned their backs on a central tenet of their faith. Johann must choose whether or not to participate. And although Johann's heroic stature early in the novel comes from his bravery as an unarmed medic on the battlefield, the reader soon begins to appreciate the strength of his convictions as he resists the temptation to join his fellow Mennonites and take up arms.
At first there seems to be little connection between Paul, on the one hand, and Katarina and Johann on the other. However, we learn quickly that Paul and Johann were childhood friends, so a coincidental meeting between the two at the end of the novel comes as no surprise. Paul eventually finds himself a reluctant follower in a group of bandits terrorizing the local population. The group ends up one evening at the Hildebrandt estate, and Paul is indirectly involved in the killing of Katarina's father. It is as a result of his participation in violence that Paul is led to admit at the end of the novel,
I have killed my own soul. When Paul shows up with Grisha to make amends to the family members for the killing of Heinrich Hildebrandt, the episode becomes a difficult lesson in Christ-like forgiveness for Johann and Katarina.
The importance of personal conviction and obedience to the teachings of the New Testament develops as a central theme in the novel. Those readers looking for devotional-type reading will appreciate some of the more overt treatments of personal faith. It is clear that the book is not only an historical examination of Mennonite theology but also an expression of the author's Anabaptist faith. Although one might agree with Dick's statements of faith, the novel's overall effect would have been stronger if these had not been so overtly stated. To be sure, characters experience frequent moments of doubt and weakness as hardships mount. The characters repeatedly wonder,
Where is God in all of this? Why is God letting us suffer? These are important questions, and there is much to admire about the faith these characters demonstrate in the face of terror. Unfortunately, we never really see the characters wrestling with these tough issues. Although characters question their faith, the struggles are invariably brief. Rather than legitimate moments of crisis, the anger and doubt resolve too quickly with pat Sunday School answers. Those wishing to see deeper spiritual introspection from the characters will be disappointed.
Eye of the Storm is a work in the Herald Press
Crossings of Promise series, which gives readers
Historical fiction with a touch of romance. The balancing of history and fiction is undoubtedly a challenge with any such work. In Eye of Storm, the historical material has been thoroughly researched. However, in an attempt to provide an appropriate backdrop, Dick shortchanges her characters and their development. The verisimilitude (although not paramount in romance narratives) suffers as the context moves from background to foreground and takes over the novel. Characters sometimes become simply reporters of international, national, and local events—conveyors of the author's obvious fascination with Mennonite and Russian history—rather than vibrant characters actually living out this history. As for the
touch of romance, hints of tender affection are peppered throughout, though I suspect that some fans of secular romantic fiction might like a bit more from these staid Mennonites other than racing heartbeats and blushing embarrassment.
Despite these weaknesses, Eye of the Storm does much to highlight and elaborate on a very decisive time in Mennonite history. For those who know the tragic story of the Mennonite experience in Russia following the revolution, the novel will serve as interesting supplemental reading and creative embellishment on a familiar tale. And although those unfamiliar with Mennonite history might be occasionally lost with
insider references, there is enough universal human drama to appreciate in the fast-moving narrative.
While the novel ends with a return of some stability for the Mennonites in the region and a brief pause in the storm, the characters are still very much uncertain of their place in this new Russia. Death, destruction, and chaos have shaken the characters' faith and security, and readers can undoubtedly expect the completion of the trilogy with a novel focusing on increasing hardships and the inevitability of emigration.
In the end, however, the novel avoids being overly pessimistic in its treatment of suffering. Despite the focus on the destruction of the Mennonite paradise in Russia, Eye of the Storm is more a story of what is gained than what is lost. And although a bit superficial at points, the novel becomes a moving story of profound faith and faithfulness in the face of overwhelming uncertainty.