River of Glass
Wilfred Martens. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1980. 232 pages.
The Russian Mennonite story has many facets and includes many journeys to Europe and to North and South America. One journey not often mentioned is the flight of numerous Mennonites in the late 1920s through Russia’s backdoor via Harbin, China, to the United States.
Martens’ well-researched and developed novel chronicles the suspenseful flight of the Johann Reimer family from the Ukraine across the Amur River to Harbin, where they and others embark for the United States. The story is seen primarily through the eyes of fourteen-year-old David who observes his elders work their way through the difficult decisions to leave their flourishing farms and begin life elsewhere.
The character of David’s father, Johann Reimer, comes through most clearly in this readable novel. Its action moves forward, not with the adolescent boy, but with the decision of the older man, for “With Father came the destiny of the family” (p. 81). The young boy, whose perspective is frequently lost and whose conflicts are minor compared to those of the father, reflects, dreams, and reacts to this father’s decisions rather than acting on his own—which is possibly the only way a Mennonite novel with a strong father figure could be written.
The elder Reimer is portrayed as a wealthy estate owner, the strong family head, and later as the emerging leader of his people in China when they search for a new home. The author gives the reader an honest portrayal of Reimer’s struggles with his nonresistant beliefs in the face of the harsh realities of a hostile government. We see his temptations to hoard his wealth instead of sharing with another family and also his friendships and hostilities toward the Russians.
In very sensitive language, the book shows the close relationship of this agrarian people to the soil and their feelings of loss when transplanted to the starving city in China. They are pictured as resourceful, careful managers of their resources, with strong faith in God and determination to survive.
I personally wish the Russian flavor had been strengthened, if only by keeping German or Russian names for people and their relationships. I found it hard to have the young children refer to parents with the American “Mom” and “Grandpa” although “Pa” was used.
Wilfred Martens has taught literature and writing at Fresno Pacific College for fourteen years. He is to be congratulated for adding to our slim shelf of literature about a significant part of our common heritage.