Pinching Zwieback, stories by Mitchell Toews, At Bay Press, paperback, 257 pages, $24.95
Mitchell Toews was born and raised in Steinbach, Manitoba, a small town in the plains of Canada. Winnipeg is the big city in this part of the world. Winters are cold and harsh, while summers are hot. There are forests and lakes, and especially fields of wheat. The men are tough: farmers, small business owners, truck drivers, ball players, beer drinkers. The women are their match: determined, resourceful, and maybe smarter.
In his book of twenty linked stories called Pinching Zwieback, Toews paints a vivid picture of this world. Steinbach is “Hartplatz” or “the Darp,” just as “Winesburg, Ohio” is Sherwood Anderson’s hometown. The large cast of characters runs through several generations. Based on real people, they belong to an ethnic group that needs some explaining.
Mennonites are a Christian sect that arose in the Netherlands and Rhineland Germany during the Reformation. Protestant, communal, and pacifist, speaking a dialect called Low German, they migrated to eastern Germany and south to Ukraine, which in the 1700s was part of the Russian Empire. They also migrated to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina at this time. In the late 1800s, some of the “Russian Mennonites” emigrated to central Canada, and this is the group Toews writes about. Their dialect called Plautdietsch, something like Yiddish, spices the text. Toews provides a glossary, and the first story, “Swimming in the Bazavluk,” a river in Ukraine, sketches the history.
The Zehen family are the central characters. Matt Zehen, who stands for the author, was born in the 1950s. In successive stories, we see him as a toddler, a boy in school and at play, a young man at work, a father, and by the end of the book, a grandfather. Steeped in Mennonite culture, Matt is thoughtful by nature and conscientious in behavior but not religious. He is an observant narrator. Toews has the gift of making other people seen and heard. He also gets under their skin. We know what’s important to them and why they act the way they do: stubborn, violent, and compassionate.
Hart Zehen is Matt’s father. In “Nothing to Lose,” Hart is a young man working for a bakery he owns with two brothers. He wants to buy them out, and while thinking about this goal appears absent-minded to a customer, who teases him. His handshake brings the other man to his knees. In “Breezy,” we see him at 4:30 in the morning:
“Hart was stuffed into his white baker’s tee-shirt like a sausage left in the sun. He had scars on his chin and his lips, and his front teeth were clipped off at an angle and capped with a thin sliver of gold. He would sweat profusely in the heat of the bakery . . . he would cough his throat clear and begin singing in an unexpected and beautiful tenor voice, leading the other bakers in familiar hymns or popular songs.”
The book title comes from the bakery, as Toews explains up front:
“Pinching Zwieback is the traditional process of slinging a handful of dough and squeezing off enough between the index finger and thumb to form the bottom half of a bun. This is placed on a greased baking pan, and the process is immediately duplicated, pinching a slightly smaller doughball for the top . . . muscular forearms give testimony to the rigors of this labour.”
Justy Zehen is Hart’s wife. We see her in several stories, too. In “Willa Hund,” she is young and awkward among church ladies at tea. She feels socially inferior, escapes to a toilet, and has a nip of alcohol. Later, in “The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon,” Justy defends her daughter Edith’s right to wear pants to school in winter. As the competent and feisty mother of Matt:
“She was rail thin, but each length of her was oddly punctuated with a jutting joint that reminded me of an ink blot on an otherwise smooth straight line. Wrists, elbows, hips, and narrow shoulders each clenched like a knot in a rope. She was slightly stooped, though not tall . . . Her voice was gravelly from cigarettes . . . Mother wore modern, tight-fitting slacks and knit sweaters. Her hair was bobbed short, and she had an affection for hats.”
Diedrich Deutsch from the nearby town of Winkler is the hero of three stories. We see him at age fourteen, smart and athletic, and much later at a cancer survivor support group. Groota Peeta is Matt’s childhood friend from Mexico.
Toews has written more than twenty others, some set in Hartplatz, and a novel set in the Canadian north. This is his first published book. At Bay Press is in Winnipeg, Manitoba, website atbaypress.com.