by Rachel Waltner Goosen
Julia Kasdorf, The Body and
the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 207 pages, $26.00 hardcover.
On my bookshelf are now three volumes by poet Julia Kasdorf,
all published within the past decade. This latest, The Body and
the Book, is a collection of ten essays, interspersed with some
of the author's previously-published poems. Rounding out the
collection are photographs, illustrations, and the poems of several
other writers, Jeff Gundy's "How to Write the New Mennonite
Poem" and David Wright's "A New Mennonite Replies to
Each essay explores themes familiar from Kasdorf's poetry - her
Amish and Mennonite heritage and her upbringing in Pennsylvania,
especially childhood summers spent with extended family in Mifflin
County's "Big Valley"; her sense of forged identity
and but also dislocation as a result of moving between rural
communities and eastern cities (Pittsburgh, New York); relationships
with family, friends, and acquaintances; and sexuality. But while
these themes all surface repeatedly, the idea of vocation, and
especially the artist's work in relation to her audience, is
Kasdorf tells us early on that "the body" of her title
connotes several specific meanings: the religious community,
as in "one body" and "the Body of Christ,"
as well as the physical bodies of her subjects. Meanwhile, "the
book" refers variously to the Bible, the Martyrs' Mirror,
and even to particular books that she and others have written.
Since this is a self-study, "the book" also literally
means the work at hand, the product of Kasdorf's labors to write
out of her own experience for Mennonites and others. Readers'
responses to her writings - whether warmly receptive, mildly
critical, or personally offended - mediate Kasdorf's identity
as an interpreter of Mennonite experience.
Kasdorf has a gift for the metaphoric. She likens the process
and effects of her own literary endeavors to the extraordinary
but eminently practical Mennonite Central Committee meat canner:
"Perhaps the canner does not comply with the most sophisticated
or efficient plans for combating world hunger, but it satisfies
a basic human need to do something concrete in the face of cruel
and confusing times. . . . So in the spirit of the meat canner,
I offer these essays: They are composed for relief from whatever
was at hand in my life: memory, stories, treasurers, trauma,
and the need to make meaning out of loss and change" (pp.
In a 1995 conversation, Kasdorf commented on differences between
prose and poetry, suggesting that expository writing has the
potential to be more threatening to readers than does poetry:
"Maybe this is what is comes down to: There are the official
interpreters of the community, and then when there's an unofficial
interpreter, that's quite threatening. . . . Poetry you can sort
of fudge. But [with prose}, you're writing in plain English."
By moving to "plain English," but not abandoning her
critical stance toward Mennonite church traditions and institutional
life, Kasdorf lets readers in on autobiographical details that
help to illuminate her passion for writing. In pre-adolescence,
she says, "I began compulsively to narrate my life in school
tablets . . . . I shaped whatever had happened that day into
words. In order to have something to write each evening, I developed
the habits of watching and converting experience into language"
(p. 12). This child's observant eye, translated into narrative,
she recalls, was stimulated by travels back and forth between
her own home in western Pennsylvania and the Amish and conservative
Mennonite cultures carved out by her relatives in the Big Valley.
Sensitivity to her surroundings was also helped along by folk
like her grandmother Bertha Peachey Spicher Sharpe (sic.), who
Kasdorf calls "my link to the Valley, keeper of its stories,
guide and teacher of its ways, cook of its foods-my Mennonite
muse" (p. 17). Kasdorf writes about Mennonite experience
from many angles, but with particular focus on an ethnicity that
is specific to her own Pennsylvania family heritage with its
mix of "plain" and "non-plain" cultural expressions.
She knows, given the varied ethnic and geographic threads of
Mennonite history, that her characterizations are specific to
time and place -- not universal.
Moving to "plain English" but simultaneously defending
a poet's sensibilities allows Kasdorf to discuss what she sees
most lamentable about Mennonite and Amish traditions and ethos.
Her portrayals of Mennonite institutions and leaders are, more
often than not, cranky. Kasdorf looks for situations, historical
and contemporary, where male leaders have received recognition
and legitimization for their deeds, while overtly or tacitly
contributing to the silence of others. This subject is explored
in the book's weakest essay, a musing on the legacy of H. S.
Bender, and in a more provocative essay, on the tribulations
in 1948 of Goshen-area Amish Bishop Samuel Hochstetler and his
daughter Lucy Hochstetler. The Hochstetler case involved legal
action against the Amish leader for his treatment of his mentally
ill daughter. Kasdorf scrutinizes two well-respected Mennonite
leaders who involved themselves in the case - Goshen College
professors Guy F. Hershberger and John Umble - by publicly coming
to the defense of the maligned Amishman (an understandable impulse,
in Kasdorf's view), but yet giving little attention to the predicament
of Bishop Hochstetler's daughter Lucy (a transgression, in Kasdorf's
It is not surprising that patriarchal stories, shortcomings,
and sins are among Kasdorf's complaints about the recent Mennonite
past. Kasdorf observes that she came of age in the 1970s when
societal changes brought about by the women's liberation movement
were readily apparent; yet subordination of women remained a
feature of congregational life. Others seemed to assume that
she would not be a church leader, even though she was a baptized,
active member of her congregation and denomination. She perceived
that she "was not being groomed to become a prince of the
church," and later came to regard this subtle gender differentiation
as betrayal: "Great freedom came with slight expectations"
(p. 139). Elsewhere in The Body and the Book, Kasdorf writes
about having eventually left the Mennonite Church and making
the Episcopal Church her spiritual home.
I identify with Kasdorf's assessment of the costs - personal
and churchwide - that came with privileging boys (not girls)
in the proverbial "tap on the shoulder" a generation
and more ago. Other readers will identify with other stories
she divulges from her own experience: the twists and turns in
perception that result from digging through historical archives;
the treasured story of a child's conversation with one of many
hobos who stopped by an Amish home during the Great Depression;
or even, perhaps, Kasdorf's trauma, perpetrated over a number
of years by a lecherous neighbor man. Again, these are stories
Kasdorf offers to her readers for "relief," not least
Kasdorf relishes being an outsider but still sees herself as
a daughter of the faith tradition, and she offers The Body and
the Book as a sign of her rootedness and continuing interest,
even if she is not often present in Mennonite meetingplaces or
personally engaged in the church's business. Given her movement
away from Mennonite people and places, how long will she claim
authority as an interpreter of Mennonite life? It's an open question,
not answered by this body of writings. But I'll look for the
emergence of another volume of poetry from Kasdorf, a few years
from now, to see where she's heading.
Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at
Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas