The Knot at the Beginning: Untying Dora Dueck’s Return Stroke
Dora Dueck’s collection of essays and memoir Return Stroke speaks of the endless return to the past in search of stories. These stories engage with the complex matrix of her existence in this world as a wife, mother, daughter, writer, and Missionary. “But if there is a thesis poking through the parts, it is probably the notion of change.” (2)
Books that do not attempt to label themselves always entrance me and Return Stroke is no exception. Her younger years in 1980s Paraguay coexist with references to a most Canadian of past times, listening to the book programs from CBC Radio, such as Writers and Company. The marriage’s very South American ritual of mate drinking in the morning, warms my Argentinian heart: “For half an hour at least, they drank the Paraguayan tea called mate, taking their turns. He poured, he served, and within this familiar gentle ritual, nearly every morning, she emerged to the day.” (8)
There are recollections of reading, transcending generations, as her own mother “would stop housework to read to a child.” (15) What I find refreshing about Dueck’s collection is how the spontaneity and immediacy of memories assail one’s day, as vivid as the day those events took place. Her work breathes both the scent of the Paraguayan jungle and the crisp Prairie air.
We hear Dueck as she comes to terms with herself as an immigrant, content with being in the margins of the Mennonite Paraguayan milieu. “Perhaps my inability to speak fluently in Chaco was a gift as well.” (161) These feelings are tempered by her personal conflict when she hires an Indigenous Nivaclé woman to help with the household chores after her daughter is born. “But I could never lose my consciousness of the Nivaclé woman working almost soundlessly around me.” (172) This must be one of the most excruciating paragraphs to read since the author argues that “the Mission never gave us any orientation to the people with whom Helmut worked” (172) as she restates the focus of her writing, “the Mennonites of the Chaco.” (172) Her candidness, however, reads clear-eyed, and as a reader, I take it at face value. I believe, though, as an immigrant from South America to Canada, that her experience could be better described as that of a non-traditional expat.
Throughout the text, there are profuse mentions of Woolf, Mandelstam, and others, but they never feel contrived, just simply woven into her train of thought. She also meditates on reading as she writes her book. A reader is made by reading, the need for reading “must be tempered with the entire reality of its practice.” (22) Her Paraguayan sojourn was predated by that of her father-in-law, one of the many Mennonite refugees from Russia who settled in the arid Chaco in the early 1930s. Her process to capture her father-in-law in biographical writing is a writing workshop’s dream.
Return Stroke: essays & memoir can be ordered from your local bookstore, from Commonword (commonword.ca; firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free 1.877.846.1593)