Sweeter Than all the World

Publisher: Vintage Canada
Rudy Wiebe’s latest novel is at once an enthralling saga of the Mennonite people and one man’s emotional voyage into his heritage and his own self-discovery. Ambitious in its historical sweep, tender and humane, Sweeter Than All the World takes us on an extraordinary odyssey never before fully related in a contemporary novel.

The novel tells the story of the Mennonite people from the early days of persecution in sixteenth-century Netherlands, and follows their emigration to Danzig, London, Russia, and the Americas, through the horrors of World War II, to settlement in Paraguay and Canada. It is told episodically in a double-stranded narrative. The first strand consists of different voices of historical figures. The other narrative voice is that of Adam Wiebe, born in Saskatchewan in 1935, whom we encounter at telling stages of his life: as a small boy playing in the bush, as a student hunting caribou a week before his wedding, and as a middle-aged man carefully negotiating a temporary separation from his wife. As Adam faces the collapse of his marriage and the disappearance of his daughter, he becomes obsessed with understanding his ancestral past. Wiebe meshes the history of a people with the story of a modern family, laying bare the complexities of desire and family love, religious faith and human frailty.

The past comes brilliantly alive, beginning with the horrors of the Reformation, when Weynken Claes Wybe is burned at the stake for heretical views on Communion. We are caught up in the great events of each century, as we follow in the footsteps of Adam’s forebears: the genius engineer who invented the cable-car system; the artist Enoch Seeman, who found acclamation at the royal court in London after having been forbidden to paint by the Elders; Anna, who endures the great wagon trek across the Volga in 1860, leaving behind her hopes of marriage so that her brothers will escape conscription in the Prussian army; and Elizabeth Katerina, caught in the Red Army’s advance into Germany when rape and pillage are the rewards given to soldiers. The title of the novel, taken from a hymn, reflects the beauty and sorrow of these stories of courage. In a startling act of invention, Sweeter Than All the World sets one man’s quest for family and love against centuries of turmoil.

Rudy Wiebe first wrote of Mennonite resettlement in his 1970 epic novel The Blue Mountains of China. Since then, much of his work has focused on re-imagining the history of the Canadian Northwest. In Sweeter Than All the World, as in many of his most acclaimed novels, Wiebe has sought out real historical characters to tell an extraordinary story. William Keith, a University of Toronto professor and author of a book about Wiebe, writes: “Wiebe has a knack for divining wells of human feeling in historical sources.” Here, all the main characters share his name, and the history is one to which he belongs. Moreover, alongside those flashbacks into history is revealed an utterly compelling contemporary story of a man whose background is not totally unlike the author’s own. Wiebe sets his narrative against his two favourite backdrops: the northern Alberta landscape, and the shared memories of the Mennonite people. Sweeter Than All the World is a compassionate, erudite and stimulating work of fiction that shares the deep-rooted concerns of all of Wiebe’s work: how to make history live in our imagination, and how we can best live our lives.



Speaking Waskahikan
Waskahikan, Northern Alberta


In summer the poplar leaves clicked and flickered at him, in winter the stiff spruce rustled with voices. The boy, barefoot in the heat or trussed up like a lumpy package against the fierce silver cold, went alone into the bush, where...
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A creative exploration of the interrelationships between personal identity, religious faith and historical particularity…. Wiebe is…successful in crafting a range of haunting and evocative images.”
Mennonite Brethren Herald

“A beautiful, moving book….there is some absolutely lovely stuff here….The descriptions…are marvellous….the book achieves a wonderful cinematic clarity…”
–Mark Sinnett, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 27, 2001

“With the audacious confidence of a mature writer, [Wiebe] breathes life into a series of Mennonite characters, who tell their stories from beyond the grave, in the first person and in present tense.”

“This is a profoundly serious book. It is a many-voiced testimonial, a discrete series of monologues, and it functions by accumulation, one horrific tale after another, augmenting into a chorus of witnesses…. Sweeter Than All the World is a construct of iron tongs and stone, a testimony to what Italo Calvino called … “the virtues of weight.”… [T]his novel deserves respect. It is an important work; a fictional compilation of voices from Mennonite history, and a resonant portrait of a contemporary man inflicted with a chronic (and, it would seem, inherited) sense of brokenness.”
–Margaret Sweatman, Ottawa Citizen

“His great strength lies in meticulous research, passion for his subjects, and a powerful narrative sweep….Fascinating.”
–Quill and Quire

“Intellectually and psychologically challenging….a difficult exercise is ultimately rewarding….
Calgary Herald

“A panoramic examination of Mennonite history through the story of one particular family.”
Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“Wiebe is a writer who does his homework…There is much of interest here, unusual and pertinent points of history, and they are vividly revisited…. the book rises to poetic heights as Wiebe’s unerring sense of place allows it to soar…”
London Free Press

“There are breathtaking scenes infused with poignant beauty…”
Times-Colonist (Victoria)

“Rudy Wiebe has written his epic….richly satisfying and worth reading and pondering again and again.”
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“Wiebe succeeds in making [history] dramatic, intriguing, romantic and tragic.”
Calgary Herald

Praise for A Discovery of Strangers:

“A work of extraordinary originality and beauty.”
The Globe and Mail

“A pleasure of the first order — the pleasure of true art.”
Edmonton Journal

Praise for Stolen Life:

“So rich...I couldn’t put it down.”
Ann-Marie MacDonald

“The most powerful book I’ve ever read.... Insightful, poetic, gripping.”
The Hamilton Spectator