Review: Shelterbelts


Jonathan Dyck, 240 pgs, Conundrum Press,, $20

While obviously preferable to outright hatred, tolerance leaves a lot to be desired. At best, it amounts to hiding half-buried feelings from the people you resent. It’s a long way from acceptance and often manifests itself in subtler, more diluted forms of prejudice. 

In Shelterbelts, this malignant form of tolerance permeates the Manitoba town of Hespeler, a Mennonite community established by Russian immigrants in the 1870s. As the modern world presses in on the rural landscape, the townspeople find themselves increasingly splintered into rival churches, each pushing towards a different future. Some strive to make their faith more inclusive, while others double down on ideas of spiritual purity, leaving many shut out from the fold. The arrival of a new megachurch only serves to further ignite long-standing tensions. It’s a community caught between an unfamiliar future and a carefully doctored version of its own troubled past. 

How people interact with their personal and local history is of primary concern here. Does history refer only to a settled narrative we cannot change, stranded here in the present? Or is history something that still surrounds us, living and breathing through our mundane actions? The book’s sprawling narrative probingly examines these questions, lingering on quiet moments and things left unsaid: a loaded glance from a passing car, the slowly changing topography of a relationship. The lives of the townspeople may seem small and inconsequential, but under Dyck’s pen every gesture feels packed with implication. 

Shelterbelts is an understated but forceful debut — a modern prairie drama with its own distinct visual language and memorable cast of characters, an impressive work that leaves one wanting more in the best way possible.