Here’s an immigration story that took me by total surprise: German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico who work as migrant laborers in Canada. To understand just how many levels of peripatetic displacement that involves, you have to read this fascinating (mega-award-winning!) book backwards.
“Canada and the United States were built by people who valued freedom and opportunity. That is part of the reason so many came to North America in search of a fresh beginning in spite of the challenges,” writes Maxine Trottier in the story’s afterword. Those opportunity seekers include seasonal laborers, also called migrants, who remain a controversial part of today’s North American labor force.
Among those migrants are Mennonites who left Canada in the 1920s and moved to Mexico: “There they hoped to farm, withdraw from the modern world and find religious freedom.” They kept their Canadian citizenship, which allowed them to return to Canada to work when their Mexican farms could not sustain them. That migration continues today … because “[t]heir farms in Mexico, while no longer successful enough to support them, are still their homes.”
Anna is her family’s youngest child. She “feels like a bird,” as her family travels north in the spring and back south every fall, “chasing the sun, following the warmth.” She wonders what a “stay in one place”-sort-of-life might be like, but she knows she’s more like a jack rabbit who makes homes in abandoned burrows just as her family moves into farmhouses “filled with the ghosts of last year’s workers.”
Too young for labor, she watches over her worker bee family. She sleeps curled like a kitten with her sisters, while her puppy-like brothers snooze in another room. Her large family endures the local stares, while Anna peeks through the apples in the grocery store filled with people and things she doesn’t understand. She imagines feeling the solidity of the trees around her, which stay grounded through the fall and snow, but when the geese fly away, “with them goes Anna … like a feather in the wind.”
Illustrator Isabelle Arsenault who also brought her whimsical magic to one of my favorites, Spork by Kyo Maclear, imbues Anna with innocent curiosity in her little red dress with her matching red cheeks. Moments of Anna’s imagination come vividly to life, as the geese sport various headscarves and hats just like her family, the giant jack rabbit bounds out the door with last year’s ghosts looking on, the kitty-sisters are sleepily dazzled by the moon and the stars, while the puppy-brothers lie sprawled every which way on a “blanket that barely covers them all.”
The final spread – especially touching – of the large departing family, some of them already off the page, captures Anna mid-air as she jumps from a tree swing in answer to a sister’s wave to go: Anna and her family, closely reassembled, begin their unified journey back home.