I just finished reading Dora Dueck’s new novel This Hidden Thing. It is the story of a Mennonite girl, Maria Klassen, fresh from Russia, supporting her parents and siblings as a maid for a Winnipeg (Englisch) family; a life-altering experience there leads to life-long kept secrets.
I’ve written and proofread a few things for Dora when she was the editor at the Herald. Usually when I read things by someone I know, there’s a bit of a cringe factor, an awkwardness. Not so here! I kept marveling at her unexpected choice of words, the hominess of the characters (Haven’t I met her before?), the way smells from the story kept creeping into the room. It was perfect, poetic.
But there was also a distance. Sometimes when I put down fiction, I have to shake it off because I become the character. (I remember a camping trip with T. before kids, reading a novel about marital breakdown; I had to keep reminding myself that my marriage was fine, that there was no reason for the blanket of shame.)
I never felt like I was becoming Maria. I understood her, wept for her. I was also surprised by her, disagreed with her. She was very real, but so was her narrator. I could almost see Dora standing between us telling me her story.
I wondered about this: was the narrator so visible because I knew the author? Or was my analytical, editorial brain distancing me from Maria through my own appraisals?
I realize it was neither. For in the acknowledgments, Dora writes that Maria’s “long habit of reserve often made her resistant to my stubborn poking about in her life. We eventually reached something of a mutual understanding, I think, and I’m thankful for that.” The aloofness I sensed wasn’t a flaw in the story; it was the only way Maria’s secrets could be told: from a distance. Her self-protection wouldn’t let me any closer.
I imagine myself walking into Maria’s kitchen. She offers me zweibach and coke, but deflects all my personal questions. She reminds me of Oma. Always overseeing, correcting, instructing, warning, delegating, baking, offering. I remember at times dreading our visits, because I would feel her constricting words, the expectations (too many to count) that came with the $100 bills she folded into my palm. Many of them made no sense to me: Why would I one day regret going to a youth sleepover at the church? Why was it shameful to wear nail polish or earrings? Why was it okay to not watch TV, but sinful to watch another channel if Billy Graham was on?
Grandma was far less starchy (but she would have to be the one to marry the pious preacher). She was quiet and anxious, sometimes seeming to disappear, but when we were alone, she would speak of things that would not show on her Sunday morning face. And when she was served morphine with her coffee (How she loved her coffee!) in palliative care, she became downright blunt, witty, and free.
My mother-in-law can talk at length about her canning, knitting, gardening, painting, and baking, but I have yet to find the key that unlocks her childhood stories, her dreams, fears, opinions, or doubts. (In reading this book, it became clear to me why I feel exposed, almost subversive, posting my life stories online; the Mennonite blood resists.)
Fiction allows us to see into another. Because Maria let me see into her heart, from a distance, I can see a bit more of these dear women’s hearts as well. As a child, I feared becoming an old woman (Hagar Shipley took care of some of that) because they were so silent, so focused on household matters, I assumed they were dull. No so. Since they were born into the same time and place, and if they carry any of the pain Maria did (not necessary for the same reasons), I can understand their reticence , their need, their strength.
I hope This Hidden Thing remains in print for decades, passed down from mother to daughter (or, as in my case, from daughter to mother), because its secrets will be even more necessary for our granddaughters, removed in time from Maria’s generation, but “more alike than different.” When we speak secrets “sometimes it might sound like unhappiness…but more often, I think, it would sound like joy.”
In the story, when Maria touched someone’s arm, “she felt she was giving him what she could.” That’s what she gave me as well. And it was enough.