History Enthusiast Co-Authors Mennonite Fiction Novel

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Margaret Kyle and Nancy M. Bell at their Winnipeg book launch. Brenda Sawatzky

March 24 marked a date that Margaret Kyle of Niverville won’t soon forget—the official launch of her book, Landmark Roses. Kyle was co-author and key contributor to the historical fiction novel, set in 1940s rural Manitoba. She was joined by author Nancy M. Bell and a host of family, friends, and book keeners at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg.

For Kyle’s mother and siblings in attendance, the book holds special significance. It contains events and details borrowed from the autobiography of Peter S. Hiebert, Kyle’s father.

Landmark Roses is one in a series of books created by BWL Publishers Inc. In response to a grant the Canadian company received from the federal government, they have published 12 books to celebrate Canada 150. Each book is set in one of Canada’s provinces or territories and resonates with the theme of historical brides. Their goal is to represent the diverse backgrounds of the men and women who immigrated to Canada in search of a new life and new love.

The novel tells the story of Elsie Neufeld, a mother and grandmother, who has returned from Paraguay with her family and settled in a Mennonite community near Landmark, Manitoba.

“It’s sort of my mom and dad’s story, but it’s not in their timeframe,” says Kyle. “[Nancy decided] to make it early turn-of-the-century. But the experience is very similar.”

Kyle and Bell were connected through BWL Publishing. Bell has published numerous books through the company and built a reputation with them as a respected writer. She wrote Landmark Roses under the pseudonym Marie Rafter, her middle and maiden names, since she’d previously authored the Ontario book of the same series under her official name. 

For the Manitoba edition, BWL was specific: they wanted a Mennonite theme, a culture Bell new little about. Former Niverville resident and daughter of the company’s owner, Tammy Cartwright, was a longtime friend of Kyle’s. She knew Kyle had a keen interest in Mennonite history and knew that Kyle’s father had written an autobiography of his early years. The pair was introduced, and what followed was over 100 emails and a few one-on-one meetings leading to the book’s completion last fall. 

“This book was a little intense, because [the ethnic group] was all new to me and totally different than the Mennonites I knew about in Ontario,” says Bell.

When Bell thought of Mennonites, she associated them with the Old Order, or Amish Mennonites. What she learned through Kyle was that Manitoba Mennonites, even in the 1940s, looked and lived very differently. Kyle admits that even she was a little surprised at some of the things she discovered through her research.

“Whenever I had questions that I didn’t know, I’d ask [my mom] and my oldest sister,” says Kyle. “I would ask my mom, ‘What was it like dating?’ and it’s not what you’d think. They played cards, they drank, they danced. It’s not the perception that we have. Mennonite is so different for each person.”

The information exchange began as Kyle sent portions of her father’s autobiography to Bell. From there, Bell lay the foundation for her story. She noted events and details of Hiebert’s past, using them to weave her tale with as much historical accuracy as she could glean, turning to other resources to verify dates and impacts of these events. 

“The blizzard of 1947 is historical fact,” Bell says, indicating events she wrote into her story. “The Mennonites moving in the 1920s down to Chaco [Paraguay], and then, in the 1940s, the migration to Mexico. Going to the Eaton’s store in Winnipeg. Margaret said [her parents] used to go to Eaton’s to buy Easter clothes, so I worked that into the book. There was a statue there of Timothy Eaton and people used to rub his left shoe for luck, and that’s in the book.”

While the characters of Ike and Elsie Neufeld weren’t based directly on Kyle’s parents, Peter and Helena Hiebert became the archetype from which Bell would build the characters. Bell then wrote chapters of her book and sent them to Kyle for critique.

“I created this lady and her husband, and when I first wrote about Ike, I wrote something about him not being rugged in the conventional sense,” says Bell. “The feedback I got from Margaret’s mother was, ‘Well, if he wasn’t handsome I wouldn’t have looked at him.’ So then I changed it and now he’s handsome!”

In turn, Kyle sent back edits and suggestions regarding language, customs, food, faith, and attire.

“She had [portrayed] a young man as someone wearing suspenders and boots, and so I sent her a picture and said, ‘This is what the young people [dressed like].’ They looked like any other Canadian. You wouldn’t have picked them out by their clothing.”

Kyle and her family poured through the finest details. Shelling peas on Sunday, they told Bell, is something that would never have happened. Thanks to Kyle’s family, Bell was able to include accurate details of harvest time, pig slaughters, and even many low German terms. 

Upon the book’s completion, Kyle felt an incredible sense of satisfaction. 

“It was a good experience because I learned so much doing it,” Kyle says. “Mennonites don’t necessarily know a lot about their own culture. So this book allows the reader to get a piece of Mennonite history without having to be a historian.”

Kyle has now been inspired to pursue another book she’s been dreaming of: honouring her father’s legacy by editing and publishing his autobiography. It was a book he wrote before his death, which he hoped would keep the family history alive for children and grandchildren to come. Her contribution to Landmark Roses, she believes, created a renewed respect for that heritage.

“Probably one of the reasons that I wanted to be a part of this,” Kyle concludes, “was [about] taking pride in our culture.”

Within the first week of its launch, Landmark Roses made the Winnipeg bestsellers list for paperback fiction.

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