Imagine yourself in 1940. We’ll visit a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, to meet Frank Warkentin, a young man who’s a central character in Elma Schemenauer’s new novel, Consider the Sunflowers.
Janet: It’s good to meet you, Frank. I know you’ve been in Elma’s heart for a long time. Since we can’t actually see you, how about you describe yourself?
Frank: You know that new movie Gone with the Wind? I look like the leading man, Clark Gable. Actually I’m joking. I’m taller, darker, and handsomer than Gable. I think so anyway.
Janet: Sounds like Mr. Gable has some competition! You’re not very old, but you’ve already picked up a variety of work experience. What are some of the highlights?
Frank: I’m twenty-seven. I’ve been a farmhand, logger, dishwasher, guitar-player, manure-shoveller—you name it. I travelled around a lot during the 1930s, going wherever there might be work. Jobs were hard to find.
Janet: And now you’re running the family farm. How did that happen?
Frank: My dad and stepmother moved to Alberta and left me the place, along with the equipment and livestock. Tractor, plough, one-way disk seeder, hayrack, closed-in sleigh, horses, cattle, pigs, chickens.
Janet: That sounds like a heap of responsibility. You’ve endured a lot of small-town gossip and prejudice over the years because of your heritage. Are you staying on the farm now to prove those people wrong, or do you really want to settle down? Or are you waiting for an opportunity to get away?
Frank: My dad is a Dutch-German Mennonite. He married a Gypsy in the Old Country, Russia. A match like that was unheard of. Even now, with my mother gone for years, people can’t forget I’m the product of that mixed marriage. They don’t expect me to settle down like a regular Mennonite. I want to prove them wrong.
Janet: The municipality of Coyote has a large Mennonite component, but there are other ethnic groups as well. Your Norwegian friends, and the Chinese man who operates the restaurant. Does everyone stick to their own group, or is there a sense of blended community?
Frank: People cooperate and help each other in these little prairie communities. They’ve got to. Life can be hard. At the same time, folks always keep in mind who’s inside and who’s outside their own group. I don’t fit into any of them, but I’m more comfortable with the non-Mennonites. They don’t carry all that Russian baggage.
Janet: As well as your friends, I hear there’s a certain young lady—or maybe two—who you’ve been spending time with. How did you meet Tina?
Frank: I met Tina on the train platform in town, west of here. She’s from this area but she works for her relatives in Vancouver. She’s got a good job. I’m proud of her.
Janet: Is she “the one”?
Frank: I’m not actually looking for “the one.” If I was, Tina would be a prime candidate, though her parents wouldn’t be in favour of us getting hitched. They want her to marry Roland Fast. He’s a jerk in my opinion.
Janet: Maybe she’d be better off with you, then, Mr. Gable lookalike 🙂 Tell us something you appreciate about where you live.
Frank: I like the freedom. I enjoy seeing the whole sky and the whole horizon, and being my own boss on this farm.
Janet: The newspapers talk about war with Germany. Would you join the fighting, or do you share your father’s Mennonite values? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand you’re not a man of faith.
Frank: Hitler has got to be stopped. I’d join the army if I got my call-up; I wouldn’t make excuses. On the other hand, I’m already helping the war effort by raising food to send to the Allies overseas. Whether I’m a man of faith or not… probably not. I don’t attend church much. Too many hypocrites. At the same time, I’ve got my principles. I know what’s right and I try to do it.
Janet: What’s your biggest challenge right now?
Frank: Doing a good job on this farm. I owe my dad that. And I owe it to myself.
Janet: What do you like to do to recharge?
Frank: I play my guitar. And I go fishing with my Norwegian bachelor friends.
Janet: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever done?
Frank: Let Dorrie Harms talk me into taking her to the Mennonite Church. As I said, I’m not really a churchgoer, but Dorrie’s a little blonde charmer. I relax more with her than with Tina.
Janet: Cake or Pie? Coffee or tea?
Frank: Lemon meringue pie with real coffee. Some Mennonites drink prips. It’s made of roasted barley and stuff, a poor substitute for coffee.
Janet: Is there anything you’d like to say to Elma, your writer?
Frank: Tell Elma she can’t control me. I’ll run my life my own way, though I appreciate her concern for my eternal soul.
Janet: Thanks for taking time to chat, Frank. I’m sure the farm doesn’t leave you with a lot of free time. Your life hasn’t been easy, and I don’t think that will change. But I believe you have what it takes to overcome the struggles. And maybe there are more people on your side than you realize. God might be, too, if you’d let Him.
Elma Schemenauer was born in a Saskatchewan community like the fictional municipality of Coyote. “As I grew up,” she says, “I sank deep roots into prairie life and the traditions of my extended Mennonite family.” After teaching for several years, Elma fulfilled a lifelong dream by moved into a publishing career in Toronto. She’s the author of many books including Yesterstories, Russia, Jacob Siemens Family Since 1685, Ottawa, and Hello Winnipeg. In 2006 she and her husband relocated to Kamloops, British Columbia. There she writes, blogs, and takes walks on grassy hillsides that remind her of her prairie roots.
Consider the Sunflowers paints a colourful, often humorous picture of family life on the Canadian home front during World War II and beyond. As the story begins, it’s 1940 and Tina Janz doesn’t want to marry the man her pious Mennonite parents have chosen for her. He’s as boring as turnips compared with the dashing half-Gypsy Frank Warkentin. Obsessed with Frank, Tina leaves her job in Vancouver to marry him. However, her joy pales in the face of loneliness on Frank’s farm in the prairie community of Coyote, Saskatchewan.
When Frank shuns local Mennonites because some of them scorn his mixed parentage, Tina feels torn between her Mennonite heritage and her husband. Their son’s death drives the couple farther apart. Then Tina’s former Vancouver boyfriend shows up, setting off a series of events that send her and Frank stumbling toward a new understanding of love, loyalty, faith, and freedom.
Paperback 299 pages $19.95, ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4, available from the publisher, Borealis Press. Also available online at Chapters Indigo by about November 15. E-book coming in 2015. For more information, please visit elmams.wix.com/sflwrs.
Paperback 5½” x 8½”, 306 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4, $19.95
Ebook ISBN 978-0-88887-576-1
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