Thursday, 1 October 2020

Once Removed

Finished September 29
Once Removed by Andrew Unger


Timothy Heppner, the narrator of this novel is a writer. Mostly he's a ghostwriter for the older people in his small town in southern Manitoba. He also works for the town in the Parks and Recreation department mostly doing labouring jobs.
His wife, Katie is just finishing up her master's thesis. She is from the nearby town of Altfeld, which is preserving their heritage and even has an archives.
The town they live in, Edenfeld, was established in 1876 by Mennonite immigrants, but the current mayor has been whittling away at the town's heritage for years, to the point where very little remains of the original buildings, such as housebarns. Katie and Timothy are both members of the Preservation Society, a small group of citizens trying to stop the loss of heritage. The mayor, BLT Wiens is a fan of progression, which to him means erasing the town's past by renaming streets with names taken from Southern California, tearing down buildings to make way for desired big box stores, and discouraging the use of the Mennonite language, Plautdietsch.
The town is pretty insular, with one women as a prime example. Known as City Sheila, she moved to Edenfeld two decades ago, but is still referred to in that way. Timothy's best friend Randall also grew up here in Edenfeld, and his parents still live in the last remaining housebarn in town, with a patterned floor hidden under the kitchen linoleum, similar to the one depicted on the book cover. Randall also ghostwrites, but has a few of his own books published as well, something Timothy aspires for. They both revere Elsie Dyck, a former resident, whom legend says was driven out of town by the mayor for her writings that celebrate the town's heritage and culture.
The book's events take place over the course of a year, with the book divided into four sections by season, each headed with the season in Plautdietsch. As the book opens, Timothy is meeting with one of his ghostwriting clients, an older man working on his third book, and Timothy has done a lot of research to prepare for this meeting. So he is shocked when he is told that the man has decided to stop their relationship, with no explanation. As Timothy and Katie depend on the extra income he earns through his ghostwriting work, he worries about this. He also worries about any of the activities he does for the Preservation Society attracting unwanted attention from the mayor as he is concerned that could affect his employment with the town. As the group fights for the town's heritage, Timothy is assigned to write a book to tell the town's story. At first he worries about putting his own name on it, but over the course of collecting the historical material and writing it, he begins to take ownership.
My mother's side of the family is Mennonite, although non-practicing, and I could connect to this book immediately through some of these references. From the Great Oak of Chortitza, the town in Ukraine where my grandfather was born, to the Harder genealogy book, I knew the common heritage. But even if you don't, this book's central theme around the loss of our heritage is one all readers can relate to. Using humour to best effect, Unger shows how our heritage is of more value than often considered and something we should celebrate and learn about. His characters have depth and complexity and make you want to know more about them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read, and encourage you to check out this debut novel for yourself.
The author, Andrew Unger, writers a satirical Mennonite news site from the heart of Manitoba's Mennonite country, Steinbach. The site is The Daily Bonnet, and well worth a look.

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