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Book Reviews

The Peony Season

by Sarah Klassen

In her impressive first collection of short stories, Sarah Klassen, a Mennonite writer based in Winnipeg, explores human spirituality through a series of meditative portraits of contemporary life in southern Manitoba.

The title story exemplifies Klassen’s lyrical style anchored by a philosophical underpinning. Wanda Unger, whose daughter Susan dies in a car accident, finds solace in planting a bold, red peony for the community to remember her youthful and energetic daughter by. Her approach to life, rooted in family, community, and everyday tasks, reflects highly cherished Mennonite values that are woven throughout the collection. Foiling these positive values are characters who have fallen victim to the stresses and distractions of life. The resulting tensions give the stories a spirited momentum, despite the occasional contrived climactic moments – a death, a murder, a violent act of aggression – that appear out of nowhere.

The final seven stories touch on a classic Canadian immigrant theme: the search for roots. Klassen’s stories recall travel experiences in Poland and Ukraine, countries from which many Mennonites in southern Manitoba emigrated at the turn of the century. In “A Time to Gather Stones” Ingrid decides to visit her grandfather’s village in Ukraine. The journey agitates Ingrid’s sense of identity as her grandfather’s mythical homeland vanishes in the gritty reality of failed Communism. Klassen’s poetic style deftly captures Ingrid’s conflicting impressions, creating another fellow Winnipeger confronted by life’s challenges.