Peculiar Lessons

How Nature and the Material World Shaped a Prairie Childhood

Reviewed by Nelle Oosterom

Posted January 22, 2021

Peculiar Lessons is the kind of book to read at leisure and to absorb slowly. Lois Braun’s meditation on the things that formed her world as a child growing up on the rural prairies begins, like the land itself, as somewhat flat. I had to settle in to the rhythm of the writing to appreciate the author’s exploration of seemingly ordinary things like Bible paper and transistor radios.

Most chapters begin with a memory from a free-range 1950s-era Mennonite childhood. So we have the unlikely image of a young girl in braids and ribbons wielding a mighty sledgehammer to shatter stones. (Was she wearing safety goggles?) This turns into a lesson about Manitoba’s geological past as an immense glacial lake and leads to an interview with a local stone carver.

Another chapter starts with Braun’s memory of being a toddler, with her feet mired in mud after a rain. Soon we are following the rainwater as it empties into ditch, creek, river, lake, and ocean. The prose flows into side streams about wearing gumboots, building rafts, skating on frozen ponds, and almost drowning in a cattle dugout.

Braun goes beyond personal reflection to weave in extended observations from artisans, designers, scientists, and others. Her book is not so much a trip down memory lane as a picnic on a patchwork quilt. There is much to digest.

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This article originally appeared in the February-March 2021 issue of Canada’s History.

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