A dark secret hides just below the surface in Sweethome, Kansas, where the Great Depression and drought have brought poverty and despair to the peaceful Mennonite farming community.
Diller (The Virus, 2015), a member of the Mennonite Church, grew up in Kansas listening to the Depression-era and World War II stories her parents and grandparents shared over the years. She is also well-versed in Mennonite history going back to the 16th century. All this forms the backdrop for a poignant novel that depicts the gradual breakdowns of three fictional families: the Peters, Schmidts, and Yoders. It is a testament to Diller’s authorial strength that, through the despair, she weaves in disarming humor: “Jesus kept saving and so did we. We saved string, found new uses for baling wire, and recycled everything.” Catherine “Cat” Peters, born in 1925, 6 or 7 years old when the novel opens, is wonderfully three-dimensional. Narrating this first-person retrospective, Cat sounds much like Diller herself: “I come from a long line of storytellers….I can never just tell you something. I have to give you the context.” She begins her tale with a ride into town with her father to make the final payment on his farm. It’s a joyous moment. But on the way home, they run into Elroy Perky, who announces that the Sweethome bank has just closed—permanently. Cat’s father, Ezra, pulls out the paid mortgage documents and sees that the bank has not signed them. Distraught, he drives to the home of Simon Yoder to enlist his help. Simon is the pride and joy of Sweethome, wealthy, philanthropic, and powerful. He immediately agrees to accompany Ezra to the home of banker Bernard Hibble—minutes before a tragedy occurs. And so begins almost a decade of struggle. Yoder’s generosity is the only source of hope for the financially and emotionally beaten-down Mennonites. He doles out small but critical amounts of cash and employs some of the teenagers. In return, he receives undying gratitude and less savory perks.
Peopled with some enduring characters and driven by both compassion and sarcasm, this is a vivid, surprising page-turner.