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Manitoba History: The Young Historian: Barbara Claassen Smucker’s ‘Days of Terror’ (New York, Puffin Books, 1981)

by Esther Epp-Tiessen
Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Since it was first published in 1979, Barbara Claassen Smucker’s book Days of Terror has received wide approval. It has earned the Canada Council Children’s Literary Award, and has already been translated into a number of languages other than English. The praise is well deserved.

Days of Terror tells about the experience of the Mennonite people in the Ukraine during and after the Russian Revolution and how they migrated to Canada in the 1920s. Many books fit this description, but this one is different. First of all it is a novel; secondly it is for young readers. It tells the story of Peter Neufeld and his family, their life of peace and security, then their terror and suffering, and finally their escape to safety.

Peter’s family lives in Tiegen, one of the many villages that make up an exclusively Mennonite settlement in South Russia. His people have been in the Ukraine for over one hundred years. They came when Prussia, their former home, no longer allowed them to uphold their pacifist ideals without penalty. In Russia they have been able to build themselves a secure, peaceful and isolated world. They are virtually self-sufficient and almost oblivious to what goes on beyond their own settlements.

The war and the revolution change all this. Suddenly Peter and his family discover that the Russian peasants do not live as good a life as they do, and that they must pay for their prosperity, as well as their foreignness. Their village is plundered, many homes are burnt to the ground, and neighbours and relatives are put to death. When typhoid fever, and later famine, strike them, the miseries are compounded. Added to these are the mental torment that comes whenthe Neufelds learn that Peter’s eldest brother has set aside the church’s teachings on peace and joined a self-defense unit, and when the Soviet government makes it clear that worship of God has no place in the new Russia. Deliverance comes when the family is able to leave Russia for Canada.

One of the real strengths of Smucker’s book, from the historian’s viewpoint, is its historical accuracy. Smucker has done her research well. The story not only fits the record as far as the anarchist raids, German occupation, and typhus epidemic go. It also weaves in most of the characteristics of a typical Russian Mennonite village. The wide village street, the hired Russian herdsman, the water-melon patches, the Kroeger clock—all these give the entire story authenticity.

A second feature which commends Days of Terror is that it does not depict the relationship of the Mennonites to the Bolsheviks and anarchists simply as victim and victimizer. Much of Mennonite writing on the Russian Revolution has done just that. Rather, the book describes a situation in which a people exploited by the tsarist government takes out its frustrations upon a people favoured by it. It also notes that the villagers’ open sympathy with the German occupation forces only invites more trouble. Smucker nowhere suggests that the destruction carried out against the Mennonites is justified, but she does acknowledge that there is a reason for it.

One minor weakness with Smucker’s novel is that the reader is not always sure of how quickly time is passing. The time from the Revolution to the first year of emigration is approximately six years, yet Peter does not seem to be agreat deal older at the end of the book than at the beginning. Although he does on occasion hanker after a German rifle and long to wear a uniform, he does not really question his parents’ faith as one would expect from a sixteen or seventeen-year-old. Also, it is difficult to determine the age of Peter’s sister, Katya. Just when one figures that she must be about three, she speaks with the vocabulary of a six-year-old. This is somewhat distracting. Days of Terror brings to life the most dramatic episode in twentieth century Mennonite history. Smucker is to be congratulated for recapturing that event for young people, and for doing so in such a moving way

Page revised: 25 September 2009

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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