My Harp Is Turned to Mourning


440 pages
ISBN 0-920534-36-8






Reviewed by William Blackburn

William Blackburn is a professor of English at the University of


A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, as Browning once observed — and Al Reimer’s reach in this historical novel is ambitious indeed. His subject is life in the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine, primarily during the first three decades of this century. His themes are both individual and socio-political. The novel’s protagonist, Wilhelm Fast, wishes to become an artist but finds his ambitions stifled: “From birth he had been heated and hammered, bent and shaped by family, church and school to fit his Mennonite world as precisely and serviceably as a properly made horseshoe fitted a hoof.” Wilhelm’s world is changed forever by the impact of the First World War, the Revolution, and the period of chaos which followed — events which made it impossible for the Mennonite community to maintain its traditional way of life. The agony of the individual is swallowed in the larger agony of community and nation, as men and women must choose between traditional religious and social values and the brutal demands of survival.

My Harp Is Turned to Mourning is the sort of novel frequently dubbed “panoramic” a sort which is not to everyone’s taste. It may strike some as slow-moving and excessively detailed, despite the activities it depicts. The author’s grasp of the novelist’s art sometimes falters, such as when he gives two (gratuitous) paragraphs to Rasputin, and several pages to the description of a Mennonite factory which makes farm implements. Still, Reimer knows his material well, and probes his Mennonite heritage with sensitivity and objectivity. Intransigence on all sides leads to a purgation through suffering and self-knowledge a lesson which is human rather than partisan in emphasis. And so, in this his first novel, Reimer has produced a work which, despite occasional infelicities, does credit to his grasp as well as his reach.


Reimer, Al, “My Harp Is Turned to Mourning,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024,