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To Antoine, a novel

Author

Genre

Release Date

February 2022

E. J. Wiens

Mennonite Historical Literature

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Available online and in stores 

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from the book

An old man taking inventory of accumulated griefs and failings, fanning smouldering memories, picking among the ashes for scraps of vindication, something to settle the heave in the pit of my stomach. I come here in all weather, oblivious to the chill in the air as the months slip by toward winter. September, November, December, those embers of the dying year. ...

I am like a ghost among them, but my presence does not haunt them. I am just some sordid business from the past for the proper authorities to deal with. I scorn their judgment, but unless I be judged I am nothing. So I take pen and paper and turn to you, Antoine.

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Advance Praise for To Antoine

We are what we remember. This overwhelming story asks: does Peter Enns dare to remember what he has done and not done, what was done to him by those he loved, or hated; including Antoine, his brother, mentor … his idol.  Good reader, dare to follow Peter as he unflinchingly remembers himself. And you will discover the beauty, the guilt, the goodness, the horror of being a human being in the (as he calls it) “demented” 20thcentury.

- Rudy Wiebe

To Antoine is a powerful novel that digs deeply into the lives of Mennonite families and their friends over a 60-year period, from their struggles for survival in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany to their creation of new identities in South America and Canada.

Erwin Wiens, a great story-teller, fills his sometimes noir-ish stories with tension and terror, whether as comedy or tragedy. His narrator is Peter Enns, son of a Mennonite artist and photographer. In 1991-92 Peter, by then in Canada, writes a series of letters to Antoine: Anton Antonovich, a child of former Russian gentry. When Peter was six, Antoine 11, the boys were brought together when Mary Gordon, a Scottish nanny, secretly deposited Antoine with Peter’s family. Secrets of Peter’s war-time deeds haunt him as he struggles to vindicate himself.

To Antoine, visceral and cerebral at once, is a quest for knowledge and forgiveness. It is a vivid portrait of bit players in the chaos of twentieth-century mayhem: of pragmatism and idealism; of loyalties and betrayals; of opportunism and deceit, complicity and revenge.

- Paul Tiessen

 

Erwin Wiens takes us into the lives of individual Russian Mennonites whose communities were destroyed during the communist revolution, who identified with the German forces during their 1941-43 occupation, and who then, in a few instances, became involved with the Nazis and their atrocities. After the war they make their way to Paraguay and to Canada, but they carry their past with them. Wiens’ careful research into the historical context, his breakdown of the story into readable segments, and his vivid portrayal of the characters in this cauldron of life and death, integrity and betrayal, courage and opportunism, make this book highly informative, deeply challenging, and hard to put down. The book does not argue for a particular ‘verdict of history;’ instead, it brings us close to human beings in this heart-rending chapter of Mennonite history, leaving us to reflect on the similar experience of many others.

- William Janzen

Review by Dora Dueck, in Direction Fall 2022, pp. 206-208.

She is the author of four books including Return Stroke: Essays & Memoir (CMU Press),

“An old man taking inventory of accumulated griefs and failings,” announces the preface of To Antoine by E. J. Wiens, “fanning smouldering memories, picking among the ashes for scraps of vindication.” The speaker in this novel… is Peter Enns, born and raised in a Mennonite village in Ukraine…who is caught up in the contradicting fates of Soviet, then German, rule. … In the turmoil and aftermath of the Second World War, Peter escapes his homeland, resettles as a refugee to Paraguay for ten years, and then moves again, to a small prairie town in Canada, where… Peter’s past has caught up with him. His photo appeared in the newspaper, one among a Royal Commission discovery of 158 “potential” war criminals “living among us, posing as respectable citizens.” …

The release of To Antoine is timely, now that Ukraine is a war zone again. It is also highly pertinent to Mennonite studies, especially to recent investigations by historians that draw accusatory notice to Mennonite-Nazi collaboration. The novel also addresses age-old questions of theologians and the church (which doesn’t fare especially well here) such as guilt, shame, and justice. “What purifying rites are there,” Peter asks, “for those who have accepted the kindness of monsters?” … Peter Enns does not excuse himself but neither does he grovel; while compelling, he is not entirely likable; he is too subservient to heroes and monsters but also haughtily self-contained. In the opinion of this reviewer, at least, it may actually be fiction that best

holds—and teases out—the human reality and nuance necessary for any consideration of the past. For that truth, this is a novel well worth reading and discussing.

MORE REVIEWS BELOW:

Barb Draper

in Canadian Mennonite Vol. 26 No. 23, Nov 14, 2022, p.34

E. J. Wiens has written a powerful story that explores the question ofMennonite collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War.… As Peter Enns sits on his park bench in Winnipeg, reflecting on his life, he describes the 1930s to 1950s as “[a] time when all the moral compasses spun crazily in their binnacles [a built-in housing for a ship’s compass], when the coordinates of good and evil were tossed about in a swirl of rival manias.”… Very little in this story is morally simple.

Maria H. Klassen

in Mennonite Historian Dec 2022, pp.10-11

The novel consists of letters written by Peter, now a retired high school teacher in Manitoba in the 1990s, to Antoine, recalling his boyhood in the 1930s and ’40s, including disastrous choices he made during the Nazi period. Most of his past is unknown to his family and friends.…

This book needs to be read slowly, absorbing each chapter, searching for the deeper meaning of the various threads at play. When this happens, the story becomes the reader’s personal story.

Jeff Thiessen

in Messenger Sep 2022

On the surface this is a simple coming of age adventure story told through the eyes of the protagonist in his later years. The cast of characters is large but not overwhelming, the story line is compelling, the action moves quickly, and historical context is provided. The format of extended journal entries breaks the text up into manageable blocks without using formal chapter divisions and allows natural
transition between the narrator’s memory, events in the present, and his inner thought process as he attempts to explain his own past to himself and others.
It’s clear from the first few pages how the story ends; the narrative tension or urge to keep reading comes from the twists and turns developing toward that conclusion.…
At some points the book reads as the author’s response to a dare… Is it possible to portray a dutiful Nazi soldier sympathetically?…
Wiens is coy to the end on many of these questions…a worthwhile read, highly recommended whether you’re looking for a think-piece, an adventure story…
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