Struggling ghostwriter Timothy Heppner lives in a small Manitoba town where he writes family histories and genealogies for local people. Sounds innocent enough, but Edenfeld is not particularly kind to its writers and Timothy is concerned. After all, Elsie Dyck, the town’s most famous author, has gone missing, presumably booted out of town after her portrayal of Edenfeld didn’t align with the mayor’s vision of the community. Nobody’s seen her in years. Edenfeld is a “Bermuda Triangle for writers,” says Timothy and he’s worried he might be next.
This is the premise of Once Removed, my satirical novel on southern Manitoba life, often assumed by readers to be a fictionalization of Steinbach. While I won’t go so far as to say the characters are lifted from the streets of my hometown, my description of a community where everyone’s got a book in them, even if its a spiral-bound family history book, is definitely drawn from reality.
Steinbach is a city of writers. Not all of us write, of course, but based on my calculations, there’s a disproportionately high number of authors from this town. Have a look at the numbers. Using the criteria (admittedly an unscientific one, but one that should suffice to prove my point) of authors deemed notable enough to have a Wikipedia page, I ran a few calculations. Let’s compare Steinbach to some other cities. Montreal has one Wikipedia-worthy author for every 5246 residents. Saskatoon? 1 for ever 5785. Toronto? It’s a 1 to 6659 ratio. Vancouver is at 1:6341 and Winnipeg is 1:3161. Some smaller cities? Timmins is 1:2285, Brandon is 1:6783, Whitehorse is 1:2659, Winkler is 1:4581.
As for Steinbach? There’s one author for every 1369 people.
There’s no doubt that Steinbach has punched well above its weight in terms of churning out writers. And, yes, we excommunicate a lot of them, too, but remember that we also booted JR Friesen out of the church for bringing the first car into town and that didn’t stop us from branding ourselves the Automobile City. So, I propose to you a new name — Steinbach: The Literary City.
Steinbach: The Automobile Literary City
No seriously. Think about it. Who is the most famous person ever to have lived in Steinbach? It’s not a hockey player, or businessman, or politician. The answer to that question is, without a doubt, author Miriam Toews. And she’s far from the only well known writer Steinbach has produced.
Please excuse the inclusion of my own name in the list below, but a sample of Steinbach literary writers includes: Arnold Dyck, early twentieth century humourist and pioneer of written Low German; Patrick Friesen, Governor General’s Award-nominated poet and playwright; Al Reimer, Yale University-educated author of My Harp is Turned to Mourning; Andrew Unger, satirist and award-winning author of Once Removed; MaryLou Driedger, longtime columnist and author of two popular works of YA fiction; not to mention Byron Rempel, Lynette Loeppky, Grant Loewen, Roy Vogt, Luann Hiebert, Mitch Toews, Audrey Poetker, and Lynette D’anna. And this list is not exhaustive. For instance, I just discovered this weekend that Wayne Tefs, prolific author and co-founder of Turnstone Press, also lived in Steinbach in the early 1960s and graduated from Steinbach Collegiate Institute together with the aforementioned Patrick Friesen and non-fiction writer Ralph Friesen.
These writers have fictionalized Steinbach as East Village, Kleindarp, Edenfeld, Rocky Creek, and Hartplatz. Occasionally, local writers (shout out to Mark Reimer here) have even chosen to let Steinbach be Steinbach. Whatever the name, there’s something about this place that compels people to put pen to paper.
So, what is the reason for this?
Scholar Magdalene Redekop, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Toronto, explores this topic in her book Making Believe: Questions About Mennonites and Art. The book does not focus specifically on Steinbach, but she does describe the “Mennonite Miracle” of the 1980s, a literary boom which was centred largely around southern Manitoba. Even before the mainstream successes of David Bergen, Miriam Toews, and Casey Plett, folks were noticing that something was going on here. Redekop cites a few reasons for this literary miracle, including the impact of the evangelical tent revival meetings on the Kleine Gemeinde (the group that settled Steinbach). “I do not think it a coincidence that poet Patrick Friesen and novelist Miriam Toews, major writers in Canada now, are both Kanadier Mennonites from Steinbach that grew up in the Kleinegemeinde community” (Redekop 36). There was a radical shift in the lifestyle and theology of Steinbach’s Mennonites in the decades preceding this literary boom. To put it simply, we have a lot to process, and some of us do that through writing.
I’ll also add that based on my calculations above, Winnipeg, too, has a disproportionately high number of writers. Of Canada’s major cities, it likely has the highest number of writers per capita, and I suspect that Steinbach’s proximity to Winnipeg likely contributed to the flowering of literature here, too. Then, of course, there’s our notoriously cold winters. John Einarson has speculated about why Winnipeg has produced so many successful musicians and cold winters are cited as at least a partial explanation. There’s no doubt this also contributes to the literary culture in Winnipeg and Manitoba in general. We sit inside in winter and write.
I think the answer to “why Steinbach?” is a complex one, but it’s one that I hope you’ll explore with me on my guided literary walking tour of Steinbach.
A Literary Walking Tour of Steinbach
On June 1, 2023 at 7 pm, I’ll be offering a two-hour guided walking tour of Steinbach that takes you past spots that inspired local writers. I’ve run this tour for private groups, such as book clubs, in the past, but this is the very first time I’m offering it to the general public.
You’ll see many spots associated with Miriam Toews, including her childhood home, and other locations mentioned in her books. We’ll also walk by the childhood home of Patrick Friesen, the school where Miriam’s father Melvin and author MaryLou Driedger taught together, the cafe that found its way onto the pages of The New Yorker and into Casey Plett’s Giller-nominated A Dream of a Woman, as well as a handful of places that have been fictionalized in my novel Once Removed. We’ll look at pictures, read short excerpts, and have a glimpse into the world of East Village, Edenfeld, and Kleindarp.
In total, there are about 16 stops associated with 10 different literary authors, so the tour provides a real sense of the breadth of Steinbach’s literary history. The tour begins and ends at The Public Brewhouse and Gallery on Main Street, right in the heart of downtown Steinbach, so you’ll have a chance afterwards to enjoy a pint (or coffee or kombucha) and chat about the tour.
The cost for the tour is $15 per person. If you’d like to book your spot, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also don’t miss MaryLou Driedger, Mitch Toews, and myself as we read and discuss these questions (and others) at The Public in Steinbach at 7 pm on Saturday, June 24, 2023.