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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf

Book Review:  
Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the story my mother told about the sleeping preacher, John Kaufman. After graduating college, I set out to write a historical novel about his life. Unfortunately, I ran into some obstacles and never finished the novel. In the early 1900's he had visited the church my grandmother attended. During the late 1800's until the first decade of the 20th century, a number of sleeping preachers arose around the world. The preachers, both men and women, would enter into a trance and preach a coherent sermon. People would stick needles in their legs to see if they were faking.

I was immediately interested in Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf as soon as I read a review of the book and now I have finally read it. The poet, Julia Kasdorf, also attended the same college I did, a decade later, but I have never met her. While many of these poems address growing up Mennonite, some do not. Kasdorf writes of herself as well as family. The opening lines of A Family History about her mother read:

"At dusk the girl who would become my mom
must trudge through the snow, her legs
cold under skirts, a bandanna tight on her braids."

Each poem is a story packed with description of a world that many of us have never encountered. The opening lines of the poem, August, read:

"Dad's mother was coming home
from picking huckleberries on the mountain
when sunlight spooked the horse, and it tore
through a pasture fence, dragging the buggy
until it broke lose, hurling the children,
killing their mother, spilling
those silver pails of sweet, black fruit."

While the poem goes on to tell of other women who died in the month of August, these opening seven lines encapsulate a powerful story in their own right. The attention to detail builds the story image by image.

In the poem, Friendschaft, Kasdorf captures Mennonite genealogy.

"As I grow up, the great aunts click their tongues.
They are looking for signs of their lives
in my limbs. It's the Hartzler blood that makes you
dark and thin. It's just like Aunt Toot to love
olives and pickles and fuss like a hen.
Your Yoder nose...."

I can't even begin the number of times I heard the same type of remarks growing up. Kasdorf was six when her family bought their first television and she captures that moment in a poem. I was seventeen when my family bought our first TV. I found in these poems much that I have heard and remember.

The first poem of Kasdorf that I read before buying the book was What I Learned from My Mother. The poem discusses what to do when someone dies. She closes the poem with these lines:

"To every house you must enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch."

The title poem, The Sleeping Preacher, tells the story of church reform through the eyes of her great-grandmother. The closing lines read:

"She did not think of us,
only to save us, leaving nothing
for us to touch or see
except this stubborn will to believe."

I highly recommend this book to poets and other readers, especially those interested in learning more about the Mennonite culture and way of life.