Ever since I reviewed Gentle People, I’ve been meaning to read more about the Hutterites. That book, as I wrote before, made me realize how little I knew about Hutterite culture, but it didn’t answer nearly all the questions I had.
I criticized Gentle People for focusing too much on dry data, and not going much into people’s daily lives. I Am Hutterite is exactly the opposite. It reads like a novel, and there isn’t a chart or graph to be found. The author, Mary-Ann Kirkby, grew up in a Hutterite family, and this book is a memoir of the time she spent growing up there, and her struggle to adjust to the outside world.
The events in the beginning take place years before Kirkby is even born, but even here, Kirkby sacrifices strict factual accuracy for the sake of a good story. She writes as if the whole book was a novel, and often gives elaborate details that she would have no way of knowing. How, for example, does she know that there was a red ant crawling across her mother’s bedspread while she was reading a stern letter from her future husband? Or what the colony gossips said when her mother shared a bowl of fruit with a neighbor?
I do not mean this as a criticism; on the contrary, I thought Kirkby’s style was refreshing, and it was certainly more engaging to read than a dry family history would be. (I cannot imagine the mental effort it would take to keep track the family relationships here. If this book is any indication, Hutterite family trees are far larger and more complicated than a typical “English” family. I completely gave up on trying to remember who moved to which colony, and why.)
For Kirkby, life on the colony was the only life she knew for a long time, and that is both a blessing and a curse in this book. She talks about her childhood as if this was the only normal way to grow up, which I appreciated. On the other hand, there are questions I have as an outsider which Kirkby does not seem to anticipate. How often do the bells ring on the colony? If everything is shared, how do Hutterites define stealing? How many leadership positions are there in the colony? Etc.
To those who grew up in a Hutterite colony, the “English” world outside was every bit as exotic as Hutterite colonies are to us. The English teacher at the Hutterite school was the only regular contact children had with an outsider, and the girls struggled to wrap their minds around pantyhose and high-heeled shoes. For the Hutterites, utility trumped style any day.
Overall, I thought this was an enjoyable, engaging read. I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious about Hutterite life.
Title: I Am Hutterite
Author: Mary-Ann Kirkby
Publisher: Thomas Nelson