Tag Archives: Russian Mennonites

Review: Out of the Storm, by Janice L. Dick

Out of the Storm, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2021)

As conditions grow increasingly more dangerous for Russian Mennonites (and everyone else who’s a common citizen in South Russia during the revolution following the Great War), Katrina and Johann Sudermann and their friends and loved ones struggle to stay alive. Emigration seems their only hope, but the government officials block them at every turn.

It’s a difficult book to read because of the suffering the characters endure, yet it can give readers hope and encouragement that we, too, can continue on and not be crushed by our personal hard times. And it reminds us that things can always be worse.

The characters in the Storm series are the kind who stick with readers after the reading is finished. Some have faith, others have none, but they’re all honest in asking the hard questions of “why” and “how”. Some aspects of the answers they find may help us with our own questions.

Favourite lines:

Mrs. Franz carried the news like a pelican carries rotting fish in her sagging bill. She had caught it and needed to get rid of it. [Kindle edition, page 24]

Thus far we have been spared, and now I look around me, and in spite of all the fighting and terrors, the Lord still takes time to coax the buds out on the trees and to paint the grass green. [Kindle edition, page 56]

That second quote reminds me to look for even small good things no matter how difficult the circumstances. They don’t change the pain, but they do bring a measure of peace and a reminder that God is present in the darkness.

Readers who’ve followed the series from the beginning (Calm Before the Storm) will be satisfied with the way it wraps up, despite the grief along the way. I appreciated the author’s sensitive touch with the most painful moments. There are enough details for readers to understand without being traumatized themselves. This was a terrible time to live and I’m so grateful not to have been there.

Out of the Storm is book 3 in Janice L. Dick’s Storm series, originally published by Herald Press and now re-releasing as part of The Mosaic Collection’s historical line. For more about the author, visit janicedick.com. For more about The Mosaic Collection, visit mosaiccollectionbooks.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Calm Before the Storm, by Janice L. Dick

Calm Before the Storm, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2020)

Family dynamics, faith, coming-of-age, and gentle romance, all set in the turbulent days leading up to the Russian Revolution.

From a haven-like estate in Crimea to impoverished rooms on the wrong side of town in St. Petersburg, from starving soldiers near the front lines of World War 1 to a private hospital for the mentally ill, and with other settings along the way, Calm Before the Storm evokes 1914-1916 Russia as experienced by the Hildebrandt family and their friends.

The Hildebrandts are Russian Mennonites, people of German heritage whose ties to this land only go back a hundred or so years. As the poorer classes grow more desperate for political reform, hostility also brews toward these “German” Russians.

Katarina Hidebrandt is a young woman who sees the best in everyone, yet she must acknowledge the growing tension and the sense that life is about to change. As her family separates and the young teacher she loves is sent to serve in the hopeless war effort, she learns to rely on her faith and to make what difference she can in her world.

What could be a depressingly heavy tale is instead told with a careful touch, beautiful descriptions, and traces of humour. The characters are honest in their questions and their choices, and somehow despite the pain they find hope (most of them).

As well as providing a fascinating glimpse into this period of history, the novel resonates particularly well with the brooding uncertainty of 2020. Katarina’s struggles in the face of unwanted change and trouble can help readers who are feeling the same concerns even if our situations are different.

It’s not a preachy story, but Katarina’s and others’ examples of living out their faith give us clues we may take to heart. I feel a bit better-equipped to face my own doubts when they sneak up on me again.

Some favourite lines:

The Juschanlee River wandered westward over the Russian steppes, collecting little villages on its meandering way… (Chapter 1)

“The air is so clean and clear, like it’s been washed and left to dry in the sun.” (Johann, in Chapter 5)

“In political crises people cease to view others as people, and instead consider them merely a means toward an end or, in this case, an obstacle to a desired end.” (Heinrich, Chapter 6… timely, no?)

“Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow is in God’s hands. No regrets, no worries. I can put all my energies into this day.” (Katarina, Chapter 8, but this peace was not easily won)

Calm Before the Storm is book 1 in Janice L. Dick’s Storm series. Book 2, Eye of the Storm, is expected to release in December 2020. The series was originally published by Herald Press and is now out of print. I’m glad to see new editions being released in print and ebooks as part of The Mosaic Collection. For more about the author and her work, visit her website.

[Advance review copy provided by the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: Far Side of the Sea, by Janice L. Dick

Book cover: Far Side of the Sea, by Janice L. Dick

Far Side of the Sea, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2019)

Danny Martens, now a man, was an infant when his Mennonite parents fled the USSR to China in the 1930s. The refugees became farmers, then refugees again. At long last, they’re in a refugee camp in Germany—far from their promised destination in Oregon.

Far Side of the Sea is book 3 in the In Search of Freedom trilogy, beginning in 1951 and spanning 40 years to bring this multi-generational family saga to a satisfying conclusion.

I appreciate the characters, especially Rachel and Luise. Despite their many hardships, these two women live a sincere faith. They don’t deny the pain, but they choose to let it press them closer to their Saviour. Danny carries trauma he won’t share with them, and in his anger at God he bears it alone.

With this novel, we move from a foreign setting to the western US, and from the 1950s (which are still in the historical genre) to 1990, which is recent enough for me to remember. Readers with longer memories will enjoy recognizing nods to their past.

While you could enjoy this novel as a stand-alone, I recommend beginning with book 1, Other Side of the River. Take time to savour the Martens family’s full experience. As difficult as parts of their journey are, there are also moments of laughter. And some well-turned phrases.

Some of my favourite lines from this book:

As Rachel watched Luise from day to day, the older woman grew more tired, more worn. But then, they all felt weary after years of homelessness, persecution and fear, as though their souls were getting thin.

He didn’t even say amen, because now that he’d begun a conversation with God, he didn’t think the dialogue was over. [Danny, after a brief, desperate prayer for help.]

“A broken heart does not heal quickly, but it does mend enough to allow us to live again.” [Brigette, another favourite character, who doesn’t appear often.]

Historical novelist Janice L. Dick has also written Calm Before the Storm, Eye of the Storm, and Out of the Storm, a Mennonite historical series set during the Russian Revolution. For more about the author and her work, visit janicedick.wordpress.com.

[Note: I received an advance review copy from the author. My opinions are my own.]

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Review: In a Foreign Land, by Janice L. Dick

In a Foreign Land, by Janice L. DickIn a Foreign Land, by Janice L. Dick (Tansy & Thistle Press, 2017)

Fifteen years after Luise Martens and her family escaped from Russia to China, the past catches up with them. Soon they must flee again, from a terrible enemy they thought they’d left behind.

The novel opens in 1945, and it’s a sequel to Other Side of the River. If you haven’t read that book, you may want to do so first. It’s not necessary for comprehension, but it adds a level of depth to understanding these characters’ lives and struggles.

Book one was Luise’s story as a young woman. Book two is partly her story, but partly the story of her son, Danny. It’s interesting to watch the dynamics between the son facing trials for the first time and the mother who has endured similar times.

I always appreciate Janice Dick’s historical fiction, for its richness of character and setting and for what it teaches me about the Russian Mennonites and their struggle to live as pacifists, trusting God’s care in the middle of dangerous times. As Luise says, “Sometimes living for a cause is more difficult than dying for it.” [Kindle location 412]

Luise’s faith has grown stronger through her suffering, but Danny can’t embrace a God who could allow so much to be taken from him.

In a Foreign Land is an inspiring tale of courage, danger, family, and love, set against a backdrop of international conflict and an oppressive regime. The novel is based on a true story.

The In Search of Freedom series will conclude with book 3, Far Side of the Sea. For more about the author and her books, visit janicedick.wordpress.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Other Side of the River, by Janice L. Dick

Other Side of the River, by Janice L. DickOther Side of the River, by Janice L. Dick (Helping Hands Press, 2014)

It’s been too long since we had new historical fiction from Janice L. Dick. Once again she immerses readers in the world of Russian Mennonites, a persecuted people wherever they try to settle in the Soviet regime of 1926.

Despite the growing turmoil in their village, Luise Letkemann is eager to marry her beloved Daniel Martens. Her family wants to move somewhere safer: to Canada, or at least farther east towards China. But will anywhere be safe from vindictive officials out to break her people’s hope?

As the story opens, Luise is determined to remain optimistic and to see the bright side in everything, but sorrow brings change. Elderly Tante Manya has some of the best lines, wisdom-wise in the story. Here’s my favourite:

Manya: The purpose of prayer is not to get what we want, Luise, but to lay hold of God Himself. He seeks always to reveal Himself to us. Once we begin to see Him as He is, we can relinquish our tight hold on our will and trust Him for His. Do you understand?

Luise: Sometimes I don’t understand anything, Tante. [Kindle Location 3725]

In some ways this was a heavy book because of the people’s struggles, but the way they dig deeper into faith and find the resources they need to carry on in the face of oppression is an example and an encouragement to readers today in whatever stresses we find ourselves.

It’s not a traumatic read. These are resilient people and although some break, the community bond is strong and supportive. Luise, her gentle father Abram, her acidic stepmother Anna, Luise’s step-brother and step-sister, Tante Manya and Daniel are all real characters with individual struggles, weaknesses and strengths.

Other Side of the River originally released as a ebook series. This review is of the complete series in one volume. If you’re looking online, be sure to get the full novel and not just a piece that leaves you wanting more. Sadly, Amazon.ca does not yet offer the print version although the US and UK Amazons do.

Janice L. Dick is a Canadian author of Mennonite heritage. Her Storm series (Calm Before the Storm, Eye of the Storm and Out of the Storm) also traces the lives of Russian Mennonites. I hope we’ll see another novel to follow Other Side of the River. You can find Janice, and more about her books, at her website: janicedick.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Interview: Historical Author Janice L. Dick

Janice L. DickJanice L. Dick writes richly evocative historical novels about the Mennonite people in Russia during the first part of the 20th century – around the time of the revolution and Stalin’s regime. I loved her Storm Series, set in southern Russia in 1914. Janice agreed to chat with us today about her new novel, Other Side of the River.

Janet: Welcome, Janice, and thanks for taking time to join us. Congratulations on the publication of Other Side of the River! This novel is releasing differently from your previous series – in a series of bite-sized novellas. Will you tell us a little about that?

Janice: This was new to me as well. The idea is to divide a longer novel into installments that release every two or three weeks until all the parts are out, then release it as a complete book. So it’s not a serial but consecutive parts of the whole.

Janet: With the publishing world shifting as it is, this is the time for new approaches. Who knows where the innovators will take us? Readers like me have been waiting a long time since your Storm Series. As a writer, I know that your waiting was harder than ours. What helped you to persevere?

Janice: I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than write. The stories were there, waiting to be written, to be read. As a Christian writer, I also felt a certain call on my life to write for the encouragement of others.

Janet: Tell us about Other Side of the River.

Janice: This book is based on a true story I read as I researched my other novels: how a group of Mennonites escaped Stalin’s ever-tightening regime into China in 1930. I built the story around that.

Janet: Do you start with characters or plot? What sparked this story?

Janice: In this case I began with the plot, then created characters to live it. As I said in the previous answer, I read about this event and it created such a sense of amazement at the perseverance and faith of these people under enormous pressure. The actual story is incredible and fairly well documented.

Janet: Do you have a favourite character in Other Side of the River?

Janice: Well, I like the two main characters, Luise and Daniel, but the Russian horse trader, Josiah Markowiscz (pronounced Markowits) is also a favourite. I admire his conscience, courage and loyalty.

Janet: What was the best part of the story to write?

Janice: In this story, the ending was the most exciting part for me to write. I wanted to stay true to the extraordinary facts and also weave in the lives of the characters in a way that would impact the entire story.

Janet: It sounds like the characters have quite the journey to reach the end. What’s the novel’s theme? Or what do you want readers to take away when they’re done?

Janice: As in my Storm Series, one of the main themes is the faithfulness of God in times of great trial. In River another take away is that life is not fair; it does not always turn out as we hope it will. We take what we get and, with God’s help, make the best of it. This life is a testing ground for the real life to come, which gives us hope and strength to carry on.

Janet: From reading Volume 1 of this story, I know that Luise embodies the attitude of making the best of things and looking on the bright side. She still struggles with the darkness affecting her loved ones, and her choices to stay positive encourage me to be careful with my own attitude. I’m glad to see you’re working on a sequel. Can you tell us anything about Far Side of the Sea without giving spoilers for Other Side of the River?

Janice: Sea begins fifteen years after the end of River, and it follows the life of a young man caught in the chaotic aftermath of World War II in northern China (Manchuria). A few years ago I met an elderly man who told me his story, and although I’ve used literary license quite freely, so much of the story colour comes from his fascinating memories. It’s extremely difficult to find accurate facts—or any facts—on China between the 1930s and the 1950s, so people are my most trusted resource.

Janet: And people’s conversation can bring up such interesting tidbits that you’d never find in a written history. Those are the little things that make the setting feel real. Can you think of any particular snippets of information you’ve gleaned this way?

Janice: My source gave me visual comparisons between places I have been and my historical setting. He told me about cultural aspects of that time and place that I couldn’t have found out otherwise because his was one of the few Mennonite families that stayed in China more than a couple of years. For example, I asked if their family ate Mennonite food or Chinese? He said mostly Mennonite, but there was always a bottle of soy sauce on the table as well.

Some of the questions he answered for me were: what did you wear, where did you get your clothes, what did you eat, what kind of transportation was used, how long did it take to ride from point A to point B, and the list goes on. I tried to create a believable story world from the answers he provided for me.

Janet: So many readers love Amish fiction, I think in part because of the peaceful, simpler approach to even the hard parts of life. What do you say about Mennonite fiction? Is there an overlap or are these two entirely different subgenres of Christian novels?

Janice: I don’t see a lot of comparison between the two subgenres. Most of the Amish fiction I’ve noticed has been primarily romance fiction with a buggy and bonnet. The Mennonite story is one of almost constant persecution and flight from those wishing to annihilate them. Because I am a romantic at heart, I can’t help but include that aspect of the lives of my characters, but my stories are much deeper than that. They involve severe testing of faith, adaptation to difficult situations, and the discovery of joy in the most unlikely places. We are a people who have moved often from place to place for survival, both physical and spiritual. One of the main reasons I started to write Mennonite fiction was to preserve the faith stories of my forefathers, because I believe they are worth passing on to my children and grandchildren. It’s part of who they are. And some people just need story to bring the point across!

Janet: Well said! Time to get to know you a little better. What’s something you love about where you live?

Janice: We have a lovely house on the farm with a large yard (translation: lots of work in summer, but I love the space and privacy). We’re also blessed with a wonderful family, a great circle of friends and a church family that gives us a sense of community.

Janet: What do you like to do to recharge?

Janice: I love reading most of all, but I also like to watch mysteries on TV—nothing too violent though. My husband and I sing in a community choir, so that involves weekly practices and four concerts a year. And we have been blessed with ten amazing grandchildren who recharge my heart while physically exhausting me (grandparents will understand this comment).

Janet: I understand it even without grandchildren! Again, congratulations on the new novel, Janice. May it bless many. And thank you for stopping by.

Janice: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about books and writing, Janet. God bless!


Janice L. Dick began writing intentionally in 1989, then continued to learn through courses and conferences. In 2001 she began her first novel, followed by two sequels. These historical novels were released in 2002, 2003, and 2004, the first two winning first place in The Word Guild’s Canadian Christian Writing Awards. The third was shortlisted for the same award.

Besides one more completed historical novel and a sequel as yet unfinished, Janice has also written a contemporary cozy, book reviews, guest blogs, articles, short stories, devotionals, stories for children, and a bit of poetry.

You can find Janice at these places online (and please scroll down to read more about Other Side of the River):

Other Side of the River, by Janice L. Dick

The year is 1926, the Russian Revolution is past, and the grip of communism tightens around the Mennonite people in Western Siberia. Luise Letkemann wants nothing but freedom, security, and to be married to Daniel Martens, but escalating oppression from Stalin’s regime threatens to destroy everything she lives for and believes in.

Daniel would be content with Luise and a degree of compromise with the system, but as he faces life-and-death situations at every turn, he realizes there is no middle ground. When he confronts a Soviet official in defense of the truth, he is separated from Luise and she must choose her path and trust that God will bring them back together.

Over time and vast distances, Luise and Daniel struggle to survive and to make sense of their interrupted dreams and plans, not even knowing if the other is alive. Meanwhile, Soviet secret service official, Leonid Dubrowsky, launches a personal vendetta against both of them. Will Luise and Daniel be reunited, or will all they long for be lost forever? What will be the cost of freedom calling them from the other side of the Amur River, and will the sacrifice be worth the reward?