This is the first of three novels spanning 7 generations and 200 years. It depicts the founding of two vast wheat empires by Russian-German pioneers. The period covered is roughly from 1989 to 1914 - the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Lebensraum I, author Ingrid Rimland, offers up an epic saga recounting the exploits and accomplishments of a proud and precious people, intricately etched upon the panorama of history. Lebensraum, Book I, A Passion For Land And Peace, lays a firm foundation for this important work.
Paperback. 511 pages.
"Lebensraum!" - Book I
(reviewed by the Reverend Mock)
We are fortunate when, every so often, an author presents us with a work of such magnitude it can be immediately recognized as a literary milestone. In Lebensraum I, author Ingrid Rimland offers up an epic saga recounting the exploits and accomplishments of a proud and precious people, intricately etched upon the panorama of history. Lebensraum, Book I, A Passion For Land And Peace, lays a firm foundation for this important work.
In a lengthy and well-written prologue we meet Tasha, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, as she travels back to the small midwestern town of her youth. Mennotown was established and virtually raised up from the soil by her forebears; steadfast people of sound stock who had emigrated from Europe years before, bringing with them the grain that would come to flourish on the vast Kansas prairie.
Tasha's ambivalence about the visit is evident, as her deep affinity for her kin is edged with a haunting spiritual estrangement. It is soon apparent that she, of them all, has clung most tenaciously to her august ethnic heritage. She is a proud Aryan woman, make no mistake.
Through Tasha's shared recollections and ruminations we come to know many of the Mennotown clan, as we are shown fragments of a rich family history, steeped in religious faith and ethnic tradition. Of the more striking of these memories is the poignant plight of young Erika, barely a teen and braving the war-torn streets of Berlin in the waning days of World War II. And it is she, Erika, who takes us back to where it all began.
History tells us of a time in the 1700s when the German-born Czarina, Catherine II, sought settlers to strengthen and solidify vast territorial holdings west of the Volga. The Empress was clear: "No lice. No sloth. No criminals. No Jews." For Erika's ancestors, a deeply religious, pacifist people long persecuted for their beliefs, the offer of free land, self-determination and freedom from conscription was one that they accepted as God's will. They came from as far as the Vistula plains and arrived with their crude tools and meager belongings only to find a barren and hostile land of tall grass and gray skies, and thieving marauding Tartars. Those first years were immensely difficult, but, grounded in faith, through dogged determination they carved out a place for themselves there on the steppes of the Ukraine.
Paramount among those early settlers is Peter Neufeld and his son, Peet, and Hans Epp - who had lost both his wife and his boots on the long, arduous journey. With the Neufelds wielding the Plow, the Elder Epp the Word of God, they and the others forge on to found a place called Apanlee; a land which grew and prospered and, eventually, became a jewel in the crown of the Russian Empire. Again, the historical record attests to the unprecedented productivity of this religion prior to World War I. Soon there are thousands of blond-haired and blue-eyed German/Aryans inhabiting the lands to the north of the Black Sea.
As enduring as the story itself are the characters who are the subject of this historical novel, and what the author has accomplished in this respect is extraordinary. The unique character traits of the various people, and peoples, are conveyed in such a way as to constitute the articulation of culture on a level few writers are able to achieve. Similarly, the deeply cherished religious convictions of the clan are neither distorted nor exploited: we see both the strength and positive values derived from such faith, as well as the devastating consequences of religious fanaticism gone mad. We witness the intricate interplay between serf and master, citizen and ruler, Aryan and Jew. And in all of this we come to know and empathize with the residents of Apanlee as they strive to enrich their lives through the preservation and proliferation of their faith and folk.
There comes a time, however, when history is destined to repeat itself. The Empress Catherine eventually passes on, and the tsars who follow her are not always so kind to the Germans. Moreover, there is talk now of a new land, a land of milk and honey, far across the sea; a land of opportunity - a land without tsars! It is a place called Kansas, in the heart of a burgeoning land called America. Soon the Folk Soul is awakened once again, fueled by an inherent yearning for Lebensraum - living space. The passion for land and peace is an inextricable element in the quest for realization. It is the instinct for externalization and expression of the Racial Soul. Word reaches the people of Apanlee from St. Petersburg that the tsarist manifesto granting ethnic sovereignty and autonomy to the Germans is soon to be rescinded, and this, for many, is the deciding factor.
And so it is that in 1874 a goodly number of souls from the vicinity of Apanlee embark upon a journey to the New World. It is a fateful journey, in more ways than one.
Nicky Neufeld - a son of Peet - is tragically swept overboard and lost at sea, leaving his wife, Lizzy, devastated. Their oldest child, Jan, will later prove to have his father's strength as he plays a major role in pulling the family through and, indeed, in the founding of Mennotown. Noralee, Lizzy's stepsister, has been widowed just days before the trip, and travels now with six children in tow, and one on the way. As it turns out, she meets her future husband, Doctorjay, en route to America.
They arrive in America, somewhat disheveled, with high hopes and little else: crates full of broken household goods and the few remaining implements to which they'd been able to cling throughout the rough voyage. Sadly, these hopes, too, are dashed when met with the harsh reality of the Kansas prairie. There is no paradise, no free homes as the scouts had promised, only earthen hovels and vast, weed-covered prairie as far as the eye can see. Many will not survive this first year.
It is difficult to take, but the newcomers have their faith, and one thing more: they have the crate full of grain that Nicky Neufeld so carefully packed away. It is grain that has been meticulously selected and refined, season upon season, on the now-lush steppes of Apanlee; it is the grain that made the Ukraine the breadbasket of Russia. It is grain that will one day feed much of the American Heartland.
And so the settlers dig in, just as their ancestors had done back at Apanlee generations before. The farmers turn the soil, the pious preach the Word, and Doctorjay tends their ailments as best he can. They endure great hardships, and yet they persevere and, in time, these German immigrants - like their forefathers in the Ukraine - make a place for themselves. Mennotown grows with the people: farmsteads, homes; a church; shops and a mill and eventually even a bank. Once more the industriousness and inherent abilities of a people are validated.
Lizzy has remarried, as has Noralee to Doctorjay, and Jan Neufeld - well on his way to becoming a leading citizen of Mennotown - shocks everyone by forsaking his intended, Little Melly, and choosing instead the young firebrand Josie, who arrives from Russia as one of the few bedraggled survivors of a misguided religious pilgrimage. Josie immediately establishes herself as a staunch nonconformist, a persistent ripple in their once-tranquil sea of conformity. She summarily rejects tradition, and Jan loves her for it.
Mennotown thrives, and the German-Russians become German-Americans. As they move into the 20th century, their faith is inevitably challenged, as they're forced to grudgingly accept "progress" and modernization. Jan is the first in Mennotown to own the new motorcar. But not all that is new to the lives of the settlers is good: they are soon to know debt, as the system becomes one in which capital precedes progress. Jan and others come into contact with swarthy Wichita financiers.
Halfway around the world, life back at Apanlee goes on. Hein Neufeld - one of Peet's grandsons - is now married to the long-suffering Marleen, notwithstanding his earlier indiscretion with the peasant girl Natasha - a liaison he will surely come to most bitterly regret. Even Uncle Benny, the oddling born of unholy union, has at last found a wife.
But political tides have turned - as they so often do - and the letters Uncle Benny writes to America speak of brewing turmoil and uncertainty. There is persistent talk of reform, and more: sparks of revolt, fanned by names like Lenin and Joseph Stalin. The Russian people have lost faith in the crown, and the Cossacks are restless. There are pogroms and preludes to war.
All of this and more is uncovered and placed into historical context by Tasha - or is it Erika? - in the course of her extensive research for "Left and Right", now a successful motion picture. Lebensraum - Book I, leaves us knowing the people of Apanlee are about to be rocked by forces far beyond their control, and the people on both sides of the globe are soon to be embroiled in the First World War.
Lebensraum! is a tale told on many levels; it reminds us of who and what we are. As compelling as the main storyline are the numerous sub-plots so cleverly interwoven into the tapestry of this gripping novel.
Technically speaking, Lebensraum is a revisionist work. To revise is to reinterpret, amend and correct in light of newly available information, in the context of dispassionate retrospection. In this respect, too, the author has unquestionably succeeded. Unencumbered by the trappings of political correctness, Lebensraum is the voice of our ancestors, echoing along the endless corridors of history.