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Canadian Novel Explores Adventist Self-Supporting Culture: A Review of Stillwater

Stillwater, a novel by Darcie Friesen Hossack

Seventh-day Adventists are rarely represented in literary fiction. And when the Adventist church does get a mention in serious literature, the depiction is often unflattering. Darcie Friesen Hossack’s recent novel Stillwater offers a damning portrait of an Adventist community that is also thoughtful, nuanced, and insightful.

Stillwater tells the story of the Fischer family, who live in Kelowna, British Columbia. Sixteen-year-old Lizzy and her thirteen-year-old brother, Zach, are being raised by their father, Daniel, an ultra-conservative Seventh-day Adventist, and their mother, Marie, who grew up Mennonite but converted to Adventism when she married Daniel. Lizzy finds her father’s religion narrow and stifling—but their mainstream Adventist church and school are practically worldly compared to what awaits her when Daniel moves the family to Stillwater, a self-supporting Adventist commune in rural BC.

The catalyst for the move is the COVID-19 pandemic and Daniel’s resistance to government anti-COVID precautions, including his employer’s insistence that he get vaccinated for his work in a seniors’ care home. While the local Adventist church has cancelled services to comply with government regulations, Daniel finds in Stillwater a community of likeminded Adventists who reject masks, vaccines, and social distancing and believe natural remedies and a vegan diet can cure even a global pandemic.

Hossack does a great job of sketching and satirizing the Stillwater community through the eyes of the skeptical Lizzy, a budding scientist whose most prized possession is her microscope. But the author never slips into parody: we see the characters as real people with sincerely held, though misguided, beliefs. Hossack also recognizes that these beliefs are more complex than a simple good/bad binary: Stillwater’s natural remedies cannot heal Marie’s chronic pain from a serious injury, but traditional Western medicine leaves her addicted to prescription painkillers. There are no easy answers here.

In Canada as the in the U.S., regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19 drove deep wedges between religious communities. This was true for both Adventist and Mennonite churches, with official leadership and the majority of churches complying with church closures and socially-distanced services upon reopening, while a handful resisted, seeing these measures as restrictions on their religious freedom. Debates over COVID vaccines and vaccine mandates further deepened those divisions.

Hossack has mentioned in interviews that she has been working on the novel that became Stillwater for many years; COVID was not originally part of the story. But a pandemic that divides tight-knit church communities provides a vivid backdrop for Lizzy to critique the anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment around her.

The juxtaposition of Adventist and Mennonite communities may be unexpected to some readers, though it’s a natural one for Hossack who, like Lizzy, has one Adventist and one Mennonite parent. Readers in the US, particularly, may miss some of the western-Canadian context of Hossack’s work. Mennonite subculture—apart from wildly popular Amish romances—may not have as significant an impact in the broader American culture as it has in Canada. 

Canadian Mennonite life has been explored in twentieth century literature by award-winning writers like Rudy Wiebe (Peace Shall Destroy Many, Sweeter Than All the World) and Sandra Birdsell (Night Travellers, The Russländer), and in the twenty-first century by the highly acclaimed work of Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness, Women Talking), among others. Adventists fly under the cultural radar in both countries, but Mennonites occupy a much larger role in the Canadian literary consciousness than they do in the US.

Both groups are small in number. Worldwide, and in the US, there are far more Adventists than Mennonites. In Canada, however, Mennonites outnumber Adventists three to one. Canada’s Mennonite population is largely concentrated in the prairie provinces, giving Mennonite culture a significant impact in Western Canada. 

Outsiders will see many similarities between these two conservative Christian groups, each with a tendency to mark themselves as separate from “the world” (Darcie Friesen Hossack’s first book is called Mennonites Don’t Dance, a title that will resonate with Adventist readers). Stillwater, however, concentrates not on the similarities but on the differences between these two religious communities.

One of the most striking ways Hossack develops this contrast is through food. The novel lingers in loving—or, in some cases, horrifying—detail on the meals the characters cook and eat. Food in this novel is not just a detail of setting, but a metaphor for communities and relationships. To underline the point, Hossack, who has worked as a food writer for local newspapers, titles each chapter after a food item and includes that recipe at chapter’s end.

The Stillwater commune, like many Adventist communities, is obsessed with healthy eating. Hossack has indicated in an interview that Stillwater is loosely inspired by Silver Hills, a self-supporting Adventist institution in British Columbia. On its website, Silver Hills currently bills itself as a spa and guest house with a focus on holistic wellness, healthy eating, and natural remedies, similar to the LifeStart retreats at Weimar, California and other locations. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of such retreats recognize that no-one benefits from the program unless they engage with it willingly, which is definitely not the case for a reluctant teenager dragged there by an overbearing parent.

Lizzie dislikes the vegan, whole-grain, all-natural diet at Stillwater; the food serves as a metaphor for the commune’s rigidity, its lack of warmth, its isolated and isolating nature. Recipes for homemade Nuteena, sprouted wheat bread, and chickpea meringue portray “Adventist food” as ranging from the austere to the bizarre.


Author reads recipe for gluten stakes

By contrast, when Lizzy visits her mother’s Mennonite relatives in Saskatchewan, the meals are swimming in the rich dairy products and animal fats that are taboo at Stillwater. Though her mother tries to avoid eating the Mennonite dishes of her childhood, Lizzy luxuriates in them, just as she does in her aunt’s and uncle’s warmth and acceptance. Food is a kind of love; for Lizzy, the love of the Adventist community is limited and bound about by strict rules. The love of her Mennonite relatives is as rich, warm, and comforting as zwieback dough fried in pork fat drippings (yes, those recipes are included too).

This is the point at which some Adventist readers might wonder if Hossack engaging in a simplistic “Adventists bad; Mennonites good” dichotomy. While there are kind and open-minded Adventists in Lizzy’s life—including a progressive academy biology teacher who slips her a copy of Charles Darwin—the majority of her Adventist experience comes through the rigid and legalistic Stillwater residents. Her Mennonite Aunt Toots and Uncle Henry, by contrast, accept her intelligence, curiosity, and ambition. In their home and at their table, she finds love as rich as full-fat cream.

It's not hard to find a different perspective on Mennonite communities, in literature or in life. Miriam Toews’s books, for example, depict Mennonites who are every bit as narrow, legalistic, and unsympathetic as the Stillwater Adventists. Hossack’s own 2011 short-story collection Mennonites Don’t Dance gives the author a broader canvas on which to paint a more nuanced and varied picture of Mennonite life than this novel permits.

We don’t see any narrow-minded, anti-science, judgemental Mennonites in Stillwater, not because they don’t exist, but because Stillwater is not an exhaustive attempt to compare and contrast two conservative religious communities. It is fiction, and like all the best fiction, it is rooted in the individual experience of its characters—in this case, Lizzy’s experience.

Lizzy’s journey in Stillwater is a classic coming-of-age tale: a bright and ambitious teenager struggles to move beyond the limits of her home and community. It’s also much more: an exploration of family dynamics, domestic violence, and addiction, as well as a strong contender for one of Canada’s great “pandemic novels.” 

But like all good fiction, Stillwater deals not in abstractions but in specifics. The detailed evocation of the story’s Adventist and Mennonite communities—right down to the recipes—is what makes this novel powerful and memorable. If those details make some Adventist readers feel as if they are under the unsparing gaze of Lizzy’s microscope, that scrutiny may be well deserved.

Writing on her own blog about her dual heritage, Hossack concludes: “As much as I’ve made light and sport my experiences of Adventism (and Menno-ism and, really, Conservative Evangelicalism in general) for the sake of this blog post, it’s behind these closed doors, where many of the (metaphorical) lights are turned off, that darkness is encouraged to flourish.” Hossack’s main concern is to shine a light on the darkness of ignorance, abuse, and repression all too common in isolated, conservative religious communities—regardless of whether the dinner menu features haystacks or pig’s snouts.

 


Trudy J. Morgan-Cole is an author of mostly historical fiction set in Newfoundland, including: Cupids Trilogy (A Roll of the BonesSuch Miracles & Mischiefs, and A Company of Rogues) as well as Most Anything You PleaseA Sudden SunThat Forgetful Shore, and By the Rivers of Brooklyn. She has also written several books of inspirational fiction, many of which are re-imaginings of Bible stories. These include Esther: A Story of CourageJames: The Brother of Jesus, and Lydia: A Story of Philippi.  She describes herself as “a Christian who loves Jesus but finds some of his followers scary and a Seventh-day Adventist who doubts, questions, and loves my church passionately.”

Title image by Spectrum / Tidewater Press.

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