Laina

by Betty Barkman, Self-published, 2006, 259 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

Laina is the story of Betty Barkman’s mother-in-law. Laina, the Low-German form for Lena (pronounce the “ai” like a High German “e”). Barkman begins the story with seven-year-old Laina perched on top of a wagon load of household goods as she moves with her family from Blumenort, north of Steinbach, to a new homestead in the wilderness of Prairie Rose, near Landmark. While the distance from the established community founded two generations earlier was only twelve miles, life north of the Mennonite East Reserve bore all the marks that generally accompany any pioneer effort.

One can not help but be caught up in the enthusiasm of a young family that struggles against great odds to make a go of it. Optimism and energy abound to no end. Yes, life is hard, but it will get better! We will conquer the land and have a great time doing it! Had this been a novel, perhaps this dynamic could have continued throughout the story. But being true to life, the author’s role was to document what actually happened. Before long Laina’s father, David, loses his best friend and fellow-pioneer through a heart-attack at age thirty-five. A devastating blow, indeed, that drained much of his enthusiasm for the pioneering project. Then David was crushed by spooked horses in his own barn causing injuries from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Finally, in the fall of 1930, Laina lost both her father, David, and sister, Tina, to typhoid fever that ravaged their fledgling community.

As the family then enters the “dirty thirties” husbandless and fatherless, despair reigns. Yet through determination, cooperation and quiet faith the family is able to hold on to most of the farm and continues to eke out a living from year to year. At this point the author opens a window into the early years of Laina’s mother, Elizabeth (Lies) – a truly sorry tale of heartbreak and woundedness. Finally the reader begins to understand what lies behind that level of dysfunction she experienced hinted at throughout the telling of the family story.

When Laina meets the love of her life, Abram Barkman, son of a wealthy Blumenort farmer, she is confident that love will conquer all as they start their life together. Yet, because of complications with her first pregnancy, she suffered a physical setback from which she never fully recovered. Indeed it is agonizing to follow their struggles raising a family and trying to get established financially – always coping with Laina’s overwhelming fatigue. I kept waiting for a hint that her chronic condition would finally disappear – but to no avail. Only once all the children had left home did she regain a little more energy. Laina died in 2002 at the age of 90, after having suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for ten years.

I was strangely moved by this story. I admit I often wept while I read. First of all, my mother’s name also was Laina, and she too suffered so many of the hardships that Laina Plett/Barkman did. And there are so many parallels in this story to what happened on the west side of the Red River in the early 20th century. There too, young, enthusiastic families moved north of the Mennonite West Reserve in search of a livelihood beyond the established Mennonite enclaves further south. Such were my grandparents on the Heppner side. I caught a new appreciation for how pioneer life is truly a mixture of joy and sorrow, gain and loss and always tinged with uncertainty. And I also caught a new appreciation for the fact that life seldom unfolds neatly in storybook fashion. Reality is often more cruel than even our imaginations. But it also provides the opportunity to prevail through overwhelming and unrelenting odds – when life is obviously not “fair” and the faint of heart are tempted to lose faith in themselves and in their God.

Although the book lacks some professional polish, it is none-the-less a profitable read for those interested in the way life once was – and indeed how it still is.