In “Consider the Sunflowers,” Tina Janz finds the guitar-playing half-gypsy Frank Warkentin much more exciting than the “boring as turnips” man her devout Mennonite parents want her to marry. She leaves her job in Vancouver to launch a campaign to get Frank to the altar. That done, life on Frank’s farm in the prairie community of Coyote, Saskatchewan turns bliss to loneliness.
Their love story was written by author Elma Schemenauer, who was born and raised in the Elbow-Loreburn area of Saskatchewan. Those prairie roots and the experience of some of her Russian forbears inspired Schemenauer to write the 1940s-era novel.
“As I was growing up in our little Mennonite community, I heard many stories from my grandparents and other Mennonite relatives,” she said. Those relatives were tremendous storytellers and when they got together, they told stories of what happened in the old country of Russia, what happened on the ship coming over, and what happened in their new life in Canada.
Schemenauer earned a B.A. at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Toronto. In Toronto, she moved into a publishing career and wrote 75 books including Yesterstories and Native Canadians Today. Today, Elma and her husband live in Kamloops, BC, where she writes and blogs
Schemenauer started out writing her own memories. She began with a child’s point of view, but later wanted to look at those early years from an adult point of view. “My childhood meant a lot to me on the farm because we were very isolated out there. We were a long way from town and just being on the bald flat prairie made a huge impression on me in those early years.” Those memories and stories from Russia form the backdrop for Consider the Sunflowers.
Tina is crazy about Frank. “I know what its like to be crazy about somebody,” said Schemenauer. Tina’s parents want her to marry dependable and rich Roland Fast, a church-going guy with a good background, whose family had an estate back in Russia. Many Russian Mennonite immigrants left behind large estates to escape the Russian revolution beginning in 1917, and the Civil War.
The book traces the first seven years of Frank and Tina’s marriage. The influence of World War II is felt on the home front. Britain suffered from food shortages, and a lot of food – pork, beef, wheat – was sent over from Canada, Schemenauer said.
The unorthodox Frank has mixed parentage, a troubled background and doesn’t fit the mold. He was abandoned by his brother back in Russia and is haunted by the experience. The character grew out of Schemenauer’s knowledge of her father. “He never felt at home in the Mennonite community. I could never figure out why.”
Schemenauer’s mother went to work as a maid in Saskatoon in the 1930s, which was not uncommon for Mennonite women of that time, to earn extra income. She had an aunt there and when this aunt went to Vancouver, her mom went along. She enjoyed the nice weather, the fruit trees and always had a boyfriend in the back of her mind. The Tina character in the book is modeled after Schemenauer’s Mom. Tina moves to Vancouver and works as a secretary for a physician. She visits Saskatchewan periodically and gives up her Vancouver job to be with Frank. Schemeauer ends her novel in a realistic way.
“I’m after real life. I like to show life the way it really is. It’s not idealized.”
Schemenauer has given workshops and written an article on “Fictionalizing Real Life.”
She loves Canada and its history, and channeled that love into a book celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, YesterCanada: Historical Tales of Mystery and Adventure. From her ‘sagebrush-dotted’ hillside in Kamloops, she uncovers mysteries of Canada’s past and identifies adventurers like Dr. Elizabeth Scott Matheson of Onion Lake, Saskatchewan.
Interest in the Canada 150 book has generated renewed interest in Consider the Sunflowers, released in 2014. It contains a Mennonite history timeline in the back. Besides Russian Mennonites, some history of Swiss and Southern German Mennonites is also included.
Consider the Sunflowers can be found at the Waldheim library, at the Whimsy Store on 33rd in Saskatoon, and at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern.