Other Side of the River Review by Elma Schemenauer:
As a Mennonite child growing up in Saskatchewan and attending a country Mennonite Church, I heard many stories about the Mennonite experience in Russia. An ancestor of Mennonite neighbours was thrown into a well because the Communist officials considered him too wealthy. One of my own Mennonite relatives was imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Another, a woman, was threatened with rape by Russian soldiers, but distracted them by singing and playing her guitar.
With stories like these lurking in my mind, I’m always interested in novels about the Russian Mennonite experience. One is The Blue Mountains of China by Rudy Wiebe. Another is The Russländer (also titled Katya) by Sandra Birdsell. A new novel, Other Side of the River by Janice L. Dick, stacks up well in comparison with these. In some respects, it’s like The Russländer on steroids.
As Dick’s novel opens, it’s 1926 in the Siberian village of Alexandrovka. The first page of the story introduces us to the two main characters, Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens. They’re devout young Mennonites hoping to marry and live a peaceful, useful life in their close-knit Mennonite community.
Also on the first page, we meet a major enemy of their hopes and dreams. He’s Senior-Major Leonid Dubrowsky of the GPU, the dreaded Soviet secret police
Dubrowsky isn’t fond of Mennonites. He finds them too successful, pious, and independent-minded. As the story progresses. Dubrowsky’s shows himself to be especially opposed to Daniel and his father, who dare to criticize him and the totalitarian Communist regime he represents…As punishment, the young man is shipped off to a work camp in the far north.
At home in Alexandrovka, Luise…faces a gut-wrenching decision. Her family plans to move east, about as far east as possible in Russia. They want to settle in a Mennonite village near the Amur River, which constitutes the border between Russia and China in that area. Luise’s father and other Mennonites believe that the GPU would bother them less in that remote location. Luise thinks this may be true, but agonizes over whether to accompany her family or not. What if Daniel returns to look for her in Alexandrovka? How will he know where she’s gone? Will he be able to join her in the far east with travel so dangerous, especially for a declared enemy of the state?
Luise’s life is further complicated by her prickly relationship with her stepmother. Anna, the stepmother, is a complex character. She treats Luise harshly because she’s jealous of the young woman’s rapport with her father, i.e. Anna’s husband. Sometimes Anna also shows symptoms of a mind dangerously unhinged from reality. On the other hand, she seems able to foretell the future. “God tells me things,” she insists…
Dick is a good plotter, keeping readers wondering what will happen next. However, I occasionally found the story a bit unbelievable. For instance, I’m not sure Daniel would keep speaking out against the regime and getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble. On the other hand, I admire his courage.
The author sometimes uses him to comment on the political system of the time. For example, at one point Daniel tells Dubrowsky: “I have a mind and ideas that could help you and your cause, but instead you try to ruin me and others like me with preposterous laws that stifle any independent spark. It is independence and individual motivation that foster success, not repression.”
Dick uses enough touches of dialect to add flavour to her narrative, but not so many that they hinder the reading. For example, at one point a woman says, “I am just pulling out from the oven some perishky” (Mennonite-style fruit or meat turnovers). On another occasion young people play knipsbraat (crokinole). Such references sound wonderfully homey to me; I grew up with them.
I would love to have written a novel like Other Side of the River myself, but Dick beat me to it.
Other Side of the River Review by Janet Sketchley:
Author Janice L. Dick immerses readers in the world of Russian Mennonites, a persecuted people wherever they try to settle in the Soviet regime of 1926.
As the story opens, Luise is determined to remain optimistic and to see the bright side in everything, but sorrow brings change. In some ways this was a heavy book because of the people’s struggles, but the way they dig deeper into faith and find the resources they need to carry on in the face of oppression is an example and an encouragement to readers today in whatever stresses we find ourselves.
It’s not a traumatic read. These are resilient people and although some break, the community bond is strong and supportive. Luise, her gentle father Abram, her acidic stepmother Anna, Luise’s step-brother and step-sister, Tante Manya and Daniel are all real characters with individual struggles, weaknesses and strengths.
Janice L. Dick is a Canadian author of Mennonite heritage. Her Storm series (Calm Before the Storm, Eye of the Storm and Out of the Storm) also traces the lives of Russian Mennonites. I hope we’ll see another novel to follow Other Side of the River.
Other Side of the River Review by Marcia Lee Laycock
I was captivated by this story from the beginning. The setting seemed real, the events dramatic yet believable. I followed this story eagerly as it came out in volumes and will buy the hard copy when it’s published. Well worth the time to read.
Other Side of the River (Volume One) Review by Ruth E. Kornelsen
Janice eloquently brings to life not only the characters of her novel, but also the cruelty of situation and urgency of time. My grandparents lived through similar circumstances but shared little with us so, for me, this story brings life to their story. Yet, even if the history is not personal, the story is moving. The noises of revolution are loud, the consequences of decisions are harsh, and the love of family is strong. Why not five stars? I could hardly put the book down and just when a major life decision is imminent, I have to wait for the next instalment. I want the whole story now!
Other Side of the River (Volume One) Review by Anne Baxter Campbell
The Mennonites had a hard go of it in Siberia in the 1920s. Communists had pushed them out of their homeland, and now they were threatened again. Janice L. Dick has woven a realistic and heart-touching tale around circumstances that many of the Mennonites must have faced.
Luise Letkemann has an understanding with Daniel Martens. His family has a prosperous farm, and they intend to be married one day, although it hasn’t been spoken aloud.
Anna Letkemann is Luise’s stepmother, a harsh often hysterical woman who has little love for Luise or her husband’s other offspring. She says they must move east to a safer place. She is sickly and cannot get a permit, but she says they must sneak out, and soon.
Luise is torn. What should she do? Stay with Daniel, or go with her father and siblings who need her? I would recommend this for teens and adults–clean and inspirational.
Other Side of the River (Volume One) Review by “sparky”
Other Side of the River (Volume One) Review by Jamie Adams
Other Side of the River Review by