Friday, June 2, 2006

Waiting for Summer's Return: German Mennonite Immigrants

Waiting for Summer’s Return, a new historical novel by Kim Vogel Sawyer, takes place in eastern Kansas among a community of German Mennonites in 1894. Summer Steadman is the sole survivor of her family that had traveled from Boston, bound for Oklahoma but stricken with typhoid near the town of Gaeddert, Kansas. With her husband and four children buried, Summer lingers in town but finds no reason to eat, no reason to live. But local resident and widower Peter Ollenburger needs a tutor for his injured 10-year-old son, Thomas, and offers the job to Summer, a “learned woman.”

Throughout the story, the point of view alternates between Peter, Summer, and even young Thomas. Gradually we learn more about Summer; her grief early in the book is perhaps a bit overdone, making the story a bit slow and depressing to get through at first. But as time and pleasant experiences work in the character’s heart to heal her, so the story itself improves and becomes more uplifting. The final outcome seems certain (surely Peter and Summer will get together) yet the story takes a while to get there. Along the way the main characters and their relationships are well-developed and realistic, and as in real life some things take time. Summer must first heal from her grief, and afterwards consider her future. Peter must consider if he can love another woman as he had loved his Elsa.

The story also reflects the closed-community of German Mennonites, a people who have fled persecution in other countries and who now tend to keep to themselves, not welcoming outsiders. Here again, the townspeople develop and mature, from a rather hostile, suspicious mindset at first, until they gradually open up, a few families at a time, to the newcomer. The author also shows her knowledge of at least some German language. Peter Ollenburger, in particular, talks much of the time in German. As a new immigrant might well do, often his thoughts come out first in his native tongue, after which he translates as best he can – and often learns new English words in the process.

Waiting for Summer’s Return is an enjoyable historical novel, filled with great characters who grow and learn from each other. This story also gives a fresh look at the life of late-19th century immigrants and their community, and a glimpse at the history of German Mennonites in Kansas.

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