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Author gives inside look into Hutterite community

Mary-Ann Kirkby, the Prince Albert author famous for drawing back the curtain on Hutterite life with her first book, I Am Hutterite, was at the Reid-Thompson public library in Humboldt on Nov.
Mary-Ann Kirkby
Mary-Ann Kirkby, author of "I Am Hutterite" promotes her new book, "Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen" at the Reid-Thompson public library on Nov. 25.

Mary-Ann Kirkby, the Prince Albert author famous for drawing back the curtain on Hutterite life with her first book, I Am Hutterite, was at the Reid-Thompson public library in Humboldt on Nov. 25 to talk about her new book, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen.

Kirkby’s parents took their eight children and left their Manitoba Hutterite colony when she was 10 years old, due to a conflict to which they didn’t see any resolution. Kirkby said their family left a conflict, not a culture, and Kirkby’s Hutterite background has remained close to her heart in the intervening years.

For her, the transition was difficult. Hutterite colonies are communal, meaning everyone works together to accomplish things and everyone leans on each other. Kirkby said that one example was when a couple gets married, the colony provides a house for them to live in. As well, older people get treated extremely well in the colony – so much so that Kirkby said she would love to go back to a colony just to be taken care of when she’s elderly.

“It was quite a sudden departure and it was a very difficult transition into mainstream society,” she said. “Going from community life to an isolated little farm house … if I had one word to describe the experience, it’s incredibly lonely.”

The family returned to visit the colony once a month and Kirkby said she and her siblings lived for those days. There are different Hutterite colonies of various strictness and while Kirkby said that some may not allow people to return, Kirkby said it was a blessing that they could visit the colony again.

Kirkby wrote I Am Hutterite out of a desire to give people a glimpse into a culture that not many people know about.

“I felt driven to set the record straight and to take people on a journey and let them see for themselves how extraordinary and beautiful my culture was,” she said. “Not that it was perfect … but as a culture, it was pretty special. It had a lot of things to offer, and I really, really wanted to give people a chance to experience Hutterites for themselves.”

However, she said it was impossible to find a publisher for the book, so she ended up self-publishing.

“Sixty per cent of Canadians have never heard of Hutterites, so it was a tough sell in Toronto to try to explain to publishers there, ‘I can tell you the inside story of this culture, it’s never been done … would you be interested?’ and it was a resounding ‘no.’ That was a surprise,” she said.

I Am Hutterite gained popularity and eventually won a prize for best non-fiction at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, so it was easy for her to find a publisher for Secrets of  Hutterite Kitchen. While I Am Hutterite was a memoir of her own childhood, Secrets is more a look into different colonies and the way they run. Kirkby  spent time in about 12 colonies in two years to gather material for the book.
“Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen is  a really up-close and personal look at present day Hutterite life,” she said. “Anyone wants to know what goes on in Hutterite colonies today; the good gossip, the rituals, the rites of passage. This is a great book to read.”

So far, she said response to Secrets from the Hutterite community has been positive.

There are three main groups of Hutterites: the Schmiedeleut, the Dariusleut, and the Lehrerleut. The Schmiedeleut are quite liberal, the Dariusleut are more moderate, while the Lehrerleut are more Orthodox. In Saskatchewan, the colonies are mostly moderate, and Kirkby said that she finds the people “enjoyable.” The type of colony can be reflected in the polka dots on the women’s headscarves: the smaller the polka dot, the more liberal the colony.

One main issue affecting Hutterite colonies now is technology. The more liberal sects have embraced computers and cell phones, but it’s still an ongoing concern.

“I wish (the Hutterites) would acknowledge that computers are here to stay in the communities and train their young people how to respond to them instead of having them hide their technology,” Kirkby said.

She added that she thinks many elders are hoping that technology is a phase, but she argued that technology needs to be addressed.

While giving her presentation at the library, she asked if anyone had questions and mentioned that she’s heard pretty much everything. Some common questions she gets are about their dress or why they live the way they do. In Humboldt, she got questions about courting and marriage.

“(The audience) basically knows so little about it that it was fun after the first book to have people have real ‘aha’ moments. ‘Whoa, really? You’re funny!’” she laughed. “I like to say that the secret to writing a great book is to make people laugh and cry and hungry.”