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On the Zwieback Trail: A Russian Mennonite Alphabet of Stories, Recipes and Historic Events.

On the Zwieback Trail: A Russian Mennonite Alphabet of Stories, Recipes and Historic Events. By Lisa Weaver, Julie Kauffman, and Judith Rempel Smucker. Winnipeg, Man.: CMU Press. 2011. Pp. 72. $25.

On the Zwieback Trail is like a quilt--the pattern of the whole is clear, but each quilt square (or in this case, page spread) has its own unique color, texture, and emphasis. The book is a glimpse into Russian Mennonite history through images, recipes, quotes, songs, and vignettes in the format of an alphabet book. This follows a trend in the larger field of children's literature of using the alphabet book format as a way to organize information about museum collections, biographies, or other content that is not the sole purview of children and clearly not for the purpose of learning the alphabet.

This organizational structure works particularly well for this content because of the nature of the information shared. By the end of the book you have a collage of the Russian Mennonite experience, but it is done through all sorts of pieces of information, stories, and photos. The reader moves from baking cookies to oak trees to the decisions of the czars. The author includes a timeline at the end of the book that helps to locate the different events and pages in a chronological form--which is satisfying to those of us who want to structure the collage around events that were happening in the rest of the world at the same time.

The layout and design of the book are beautifully conceived--indeed, the design holds all the disparate pieces of information together. The designers attended to some wonderful details--the same pattern that is on the end pages are on the Z on the front cover and reappear on a number of pages throughout the book. The little hand drawings are always in the same size and style. The font is well-matched to the text, largely a sans serif blocked font that is no-nonsense, clean, and clear--just what the author is trying to communicate about the people she is chronicling. The pages are full, but not cluttered.

Maps are used throughout, starting with the flip side of the end pages, which serve to get the reader firmly rooted in the location of the text. Chortitza is the geographic focus with Molotshna and Rosenthal mentioned as well. The intent does not seem to be to chronicle a history in a linear fashion, but to give an impressionistic view. Still, the way locations are mentioned allows the reader to feel grounded as people journey to and away from Russia.

The items used for each letter are not parallel or of equal significance. One letter might be a food (borscht, rollkuchen, or vereneke) and the recipe, another a person (Catherine the Great), or another a quote or comments about the larger concept (the J page is for journey). This, too, seems to fit with the overall theme of the book--it is like looking at your grandmother's scrapbook from when she was a girl--all the important tidbits collected with a bit of a comment, but plenty of room for you to fill in the gaps with stories, foods, and images from your own family ancestry--even if they weren't Russian Mennonites.

If you do want more information than the brief text affords, that too is accommodated. At the end there is a bibliography of all the reference materials the author and designers used to pull this book together. It is fascinating and an excellent complement to the text. These authors like information, and they have been able to pack a lot of it into a format that reads easily.

This is a visually inviting book, easy to take in small bits or to pore over as you find yourself marveling at the strength, the ingenuity, the courage, and the conviction of the people and history it is recalling. It is a tempting book--you stroll through the pages recursively--going back to remember a picture, place, or recipe.

It is clearly a labor of love by the author and the designers. This is their book, telling the stories they want to tell with the images they liked. It is a work to savor over time, a work that reflects the lives of others around them that they want to celebrate. The enthusiasm is contagious, and I would think it would be hard to read it without catching the joy and interest the creators say they experienced in the creating.

Is it a book for young children as many alphabet books are? Not necessarily. The audience for this book includes the older child, youth, young adults, and adults of all ages. The alphabet book format is appropriate for this story and in many ways makes it more inclusive of the many ages that will enjoy it. If it is your own family history, you will find yourself somewhere in the many images, flavors, and thoughts on the pages. If it isn't your own family history, you will find it a fascinating walk through a period of time and a set of traditions that invite reflection about your own family stories, history, and traditions.

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Author:Reimer, Kathy Meyer
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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