Intriguing novel explores family trauma

Book Review
All That Belongs
Dora Dueck. Turnstone Press, 2019, 333 pages.

Tobi Thiessen | Publisher
All That Belongs (Cover art by Agatha Fast)

Unsettled with her status as a newly retired person, an archivist uses her skills to look into the difficult parts of her own family history. Along the way, she uncovers a shocking event that explains the intergenerational trauma in the family. The experience helps her learn to accept herself and love others more unconditionally. This is the premise of Dora Dueck’s latest novel, All That Belongs.

The book is aptly titled. Throughout, the author artfully weaves past and present as the archivist struggles to reconcile her memories against her current life and the historical record that her research uncovers. Cover art by Agatha Fast shows a woman with eyes closed and a head filled with family photos.

All That Belongs is a compelling read. Lead character Catherine Riediger calls her research project “the year of my preoccupation with the dead” to look at the pasts of her brother and uncle, but she ends up realizing that the project is really a private journey towards self-acceptance:

“Not Dad. As far as I was concerned, he rested in peace. And Mom—well she was still alive. . . . But my uncle was past, a man I’d been ashamed of, a man I wished to ignore.

“And my brother was past as well, insufficiently grieved. . . .

“I looked back at them, and I looked at myself looking or not looking. I suppose, in truth, I was mainly looking at myself. I was navigating a new stage of life, and it seemed imperative to settle the sway of where I’d travelled before.”

Catherine’s life follows something of Dueck’s own path: She grew up in Alberta, went to Bible college in Winnipeg, married and stayed there for her career. Many readers will relate. There’s retirement that includes volunteering at the thrift store and visiting her mother in long-term care. There are recollections of growing up in a rural community, in youth group and in worship services.

The story is rooted in the Russian Mennonite experience in Canada in the 20th century but it doesn’t spend time explaining it. It is simply part of Catherine’s existence growing up in the 1960s, the child of immigrants in an era of social upheaval.

The plot drips out teasers about what happened to brother Peter, while giving anecdotes about the eccentric Uncle Gerhard. Tension mounts slowly as the reader wonders what happened with these two men. The plot twist towards the end caught me completely by surprise.

All That Belongs is a tale well told. In reading it, you might wonder about some of the stories in your own family history and be inspired to undertake research of your own. I recommend it. 

Dueck has won numerous awards for previous works of fiction. In 2010, she won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for her novel This Hidden Thing. In 2012, her collection What You Get at Home won the High Plains Award for short fiction. And, in 2014, her novella Mask was the winning entry in the Malahat Review novella contest.

Further reading from our Spring 2020 Focus on Books & Resources:
A story that ‘wanted to be told’
Updated history of ‘Mennonites in Canada’ commissioned
Conspicuous absences
Classics of the Radical Reformation series relaunched
Spring 2020 List of Books & Resources

All That Belongs (Cover art by Agatha Fast)

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