Chariots in the Smoke


379 pages
ISBN 0-921788-04-5
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by J.B. Snelson

J.B. Snelson is a librarian, bibliographer, and (antiquarian) bookstore
owner in Wolfville.


The first half of this book strongly reminds one of De Coster’s
masterpiece Tyl Ulenspiegel. The time and place are much the same, and
there is much in the tone that reminds one of De Coster. The first half,
which tells of the origins of the Mennonites through the life of a
Spanish noble who becomes one, is deeply moving and holds one’s
interest throughout. There is here the making of a great novel, had Epp
followed the transformation of Felipe de Silva, Spanish grandee, to
Phillip Dirkzoon, Mennonite Elder. But following de Silva’s
conversion, the story broadens until it takes on the scope of a War and
Peace, following Dirkzoon to Danzig and family from Prussia to the
Ukraine to Canada, with the Russian Revolution thrown in on the side.
Its epic proportions deserve a Tolstoy, or at the very least a De
Coster, and Epp is neither. There are passages where Epp does extremely
well, but the whole does not add up to greatness. Part of the problem is
that in covering the entire period from 1537 to 1990, Epp has to be
episodic; she therefore often leaves potentially powerful figures and
scenes before their full development would warrant. The marriage and
death of De Silva/Dirkzoon hardly rates more than a sentence.

Despite its flaws, however, Epp’s book is more satisfying than most
Michener novels. It stands on its own merits as a better-than-average
historical novel, certainly. It deserves to be widely read by many more
than just the Mennonites for whom it is intended. Canada is a mixture of
peoples and cultures. We tend to know much about the English and French
components, but major contributions have also come from Ukrainians,
Icelanders, Natives, and others, yet few know their history or recognize
their contribution. The Mennonites (who are not properly a nationality,
but a people created by faith) are another group whose contribution is
often overlooked. Epp has produced a moving, if flawed, novel that hints
at the epic proportion of Mennonite history. Highly recommended:
Chariots in the Smoke will do nicely until the Mennonites find their


Epp, Margaret A., “Chariots in the Smoke,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed October 1, 2023,