Book review: ‘Enchantment and Despair’
The writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.”
This quote resonated in me as I read the childhood memoirs of Calvin Wall Redekop. His book, Enchantment and Despair: Montana Childhood Stories (1925-1937), imbued his boy-sized memories with nuances of man-sized reflections. His earthy tales describe what happened after being born in a three-room shack on the northeastern Montana prairie. At the same time, they exude a heaven-minded theme: how Mennonite homesteaders near Lustre kept faith alive when crops and dreams died.
These stories, set in the Dust Bowl and Depression, can plant seeds for multigenerational connecting. Grandparents reading to their grandchildren, parents passing on the Anabaptist story to offspring and children’s sermon volunteers courting eager listeners will want this book. Readily found are bite-sized vignettes for bite-sized attention spans. From his adult perspective, Redekop zooms in on the details of his first 12 years of life as they were formed by a close circle of family, farm and church family.
In the introduction, he writes about when he visited their original home on Fort Peck Indian Reservation: “As a child, I could turn in a complete circle and see nothing but the heat waves rising from the distant shimmering horizon. I could look in all directions and find hardly any evidence that anyone actually lived here. During the Dust Bowl (between 1929 and 1937), our neighbors often called Montana the ‘most awful forsaken place God had ever created,’ and the Depression, which came along after the crop failures, made matters even worse. Nevertheless, a melancholia surged through me as I remembered my childhood, when Montana seemed a magical place and time. I will never forget the mysterious Montana prairie; it will always enchant me.”
Redekop enchants readers with 37 memoirs (illustrated by Duane Graham) that give glimpses into his delights and disappointments as he developed from a small boy into an adolescent. My two favorite glimpses into his life are in Chapter 21 and Chapter 34.
In Chapter 21, “The Revival,” Redekop recounts a revival meeting at the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church. During a worsening drought, distraught farm families prayed together for rain. As a 7-year-old, Redekop was not very interested at first. But he perked up the last night of the revival when Rev. H.P. Fast said, “Many of you have responded to God’s call, but there are few yet who are still resisting God’s forgiveness.” He then preached about the unpardonable sin, and said that those who rejected God’s call today may never hear the call again.
That scared Redekop, and he wondered what would happen if he died before the next revival meeting. So he went to the front bench to confess his sins to God. Rev. Fast said, “Praise God! Another soul has responded to Jesus’ call and has been saved from eternal condemnation.” Redekop then gave his testimony in front of the congregation, and Fast said, “Praise the Lord, for such a clear and beautiful testimony from such a young Christian.” He then warned that Satan is especially interested in tempting new Christians.
That caused Redekop to fear Satan would tempt him away from Jesus if he did not read his Bible and pray enough. He had trouble sleeping at night, worrying Satan would get him. Helpful in dissolving his fear and resolving some of this faith tension was when his Grandfather Wall, the regular pastor, preached on God’s love. He preached that Jesus’ first commandment as that we should love each other. Redekop writes:
“I was happy, and glad that he was my grandfather. I looked around the church and saw people listening very closely, and they seemed happy, too! On the way home from church, I asked momma and papa again. ‘Why does Grandpa Wall not preach about sin and Satan as the other preachers do?’
“Momma answered, ‘My father has had many heartaches. His first wife died when she was only 40 years old, when he had six children to take care of and Anna was only 1 year old. He often says, ‘Jesus’ love helped me not to be discouraged and angry.’ ”
Just as faith perspectives in the 1930s were fraught with tensions regarding what it meant to be saved, so was the farming experience fraught with struggles — namely, drought. In Chapter 34, “Next-Year Country,” Redekop recalls his Uncle Abe declaring, “This is next-year country,” and adding that we had just what it takes to stay in Montana: guts and stupidity.
Redekop writes: “The green fields of spring would quickly shrivel and disappear under the burning heat of the sun without any clouds to shield it. And the strong spring winds would blow . . . taking the topsoil into the sky till the horizon was covered with black clouds, covering ditches, yards and creeks with sand. Papa said the blowing wind and sand was so sharp it simply cut off the stems of green wheat until there was nothing left above the ground. If it looked like rain, papa would sometimes re-seed some acres that had not come up, but it was hopeless.”
Redekop’s family eventually moved to greener and wetter Oregon. But the lessons he learned in Montana — that one did not stop praying and persevering even when wheat seedlings perished — never left Redekop’s heart, forever beating with the blood of boyhood. His well-told memories can be part of shaping faithful hearts in both the young and old of our day — children of a faithful heavenly parent who remains faithful in good times and bad.
A sociologist, Redekop has taught at Hesston (Kan.) College, Goshen (Ind.) College, Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., and Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.
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