The Donkey Cutter by Gregory Koop begins with a historical note about a man named Claas Epp Jr who in 1887 helped organize and lead a group of over 200 Mennonites from Crimea to Central Asia. Salvation and prophecy were Epp Jr’s motives for leading this expedition. You see, he believed that the End of Days was coming and, being the great speaker that he was, was able to gain the support of hundreds of believers who followed him on his grand journey only to be met with danger, hardship, and disappointment. When the End of Days did not come, many Mennonite families immigrated to Canada in hopes of a better life.
Set in Saskatchewan in 1910, the novel begins with a short, three-sentence chapter that speaks of death, love and the Rapture which immediately piqued my interest. The story follows Mareika, a teenage girl growing up in a Mennonite community in the isolated Canadian Prairies. She struggles to understand her religion, her community, her family secrets, and herself as she enters womanhood without the guidance of her mother who she lost to illness when Mareika was a child. Mareika holds onto as much as she can of her mother through memories, but she feels she is forgetting her and the lessons she taught. Mareika was raised on the farm by her atheist father who, although kind and loving, could not prepare her for the questions she had about life and love. When a handsome, well-spoken man comes to town preaching the End of Days, Mareika becomes infatuated with him but is not sure what to believe or who to trust. With the help of her father, she comes to learn many truths and sees the love she has had in her life all along.
As Mareika’s character develops, the timeline shifts back to when her mother Rebecca was growing up in a strict Mennonite family and we slowly learn of Rebecca’s dark secret that she held onto for many years. Through the shifting timeline, recipes, and journal entries, Mareika and Rebecca’s stories unfold, and we get to see the differences between how mother and daughter were raised. Rebecca was portrayed as a very hard woman and in the beginning, I did not care for her character at all but as the truth of her upbringing becomes known over time, it was easy to see why she was such a hard character to love. Mareika’s father John became my favourite character early in the story because he stands by what he believes in and does not give in to pressure from the outside world. He is the rock of this story with a keen sense of right and wrong; a man everyone could look up to.
The plot of this novel was perfect. I felt as if I were on a roller-coaster ride due to all the twists and turns that this story took. The author was able to flawlessly weave the true events of Claas Epp Jr’s pilgrimage to Central Asia into this story showing how easily people can be influenced and manipulated. Adding in historical elements like the coming of Haley’s comet was also interesting, especially to see how people sometimes give religious significance to a natural occurrence which they cannot explain. Religion itself always adds to a story simply because it can be interpreted in so many ways by so many people. This story shows how religion, or any belief for that matter, can be a beautiful thing but in the hands of the wrong people, can become dangerous and twisted. This story also shows a non-conventional family structure for that time, highlighting the special bond that lies between a father and daughter.
The Donkey Cutter touches on many prominent issues that we, as a society, continue to face today. Religion, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual assault, and the vulnerability of young people are all discussed throughout this novel and Koop does a wonderful job of incorporating them into the plot. This novel will make you think and will have you in tears as each character faces their own problems. The Donkey Cutter is a fantastic Canadian historical fiction novel and I highly recommend it.
About the Author
Gregory Koop grew up on the border of central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Living the life of Garp, Gregory cares for his daughter, practices Muay Thai, and writes. A finalist for a 2010 Alberta Literary Award, Gregory has also been a resident of The Banff Centre’s Writing Studio. His work has been featured widely in literary journals. The Donkey Cutter is his first novel. He lives in Beaver County, AB.
- Publisher : Guernica Editions (April 1 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 310 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771837721
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771837729
Laura Patterson is a Registered Acupuncturist and a QA Lab Technician from rural New Brunswick where she lives with her husband and twin boys. She has a BSc in Biology and a Diploma in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. When she's not working in the lab or in her clinic, she enjoys camping and adventuring with her family, reading many books, and writing book reviews.