JOHN L. RUTH. This Very Ground, This Crooked Affair: A Mennonite Homestead on Lenape Land. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2021. Pp. 386. $37.95 US.
Ruth’s book seeks to be a small act of restorative justice, an aim he states clearly at the beginning (1). Many North Americans do not interact much with Native voices, stories, and histories, and John L. Ruth delivers an opportunity to do so. The heartbeat of justice, even if it is humbly self-identified as so, is felt throughout the pages. In a recent poetry podcast, I listened to a person of Native heritage rewrite and then read aloud, classic poems with Native perspectives beside them. For example, Native poets would see and hear differently than Walt Whitman when he wrote about wide open spaces. Similarly, John L. Ruth sets the US story, the Pennsylvania story, and then more specifically, the Mennonite heritage story, alongside the Native perspective, in an act of truth-telling and restorative justice.
This book will appeal to Pennsylvania residents. As someone who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, studied in Eastern Pennsylvania, and is now working as a pastor and raising a family in South Central Pennsylvania, I found myself geographically located in this story many times. John L. Ruth honors the land by using rivers and streams as the familiar landscape between Natives, seventeenth-century Mennonites, and modern readers who still use these same rivers today for various reasons. I found myself in Ruth’s account as early as page 8, where he provided a map and names of rivers that my wife, kids, and I all kayak on regularly. Ruth reminds us that nature will not allow us to escape “this crooked affair.”
On page 16, Ruth reminds readers that we speak Lenape whenever we say the names of rivers like the Schuylkill that runs through Philadelphia. In the first third of the book, Ruth follows historical giant William Penn in a fascinating story about the Pennsylvania dream. Mixed within that historical storytelling are perspectives about Anabaptism, why Mennonites were interested in Pennsylvania land, and the freedom to worship as they felt called. The book reveals a collision of world views. Ownership of land and “legally air-tight” (243) practices are Western (European) concepts, and Natives did not see the world in these ways. Still, the Natives were “exact negotiators” (77) in this system, and when they were promised payments for their land, they expected to receive them.
Throughout the book, South Central or Eastern Pennsylvania readers will find how immersed we are in the history the book lays before us. My kids’ elementary school, and many other places in the Lancaster County area, still follow the names William Penn gave to the land being sold. Ruth showcases how Penn sold land as “manors.” Wealthy Europeans could buy a Pennsylvania manor to obtain land for their children and their children’s children. The high school in my area is called “Penn Manor.” Ruth invites Native voices to show that they, too, wanted the ground to flourish for their sons and daughters. In Penn’s ideal vision, the two concepts could have coexisted. Still, no room for shared space remained after improper business dealings, unethical land boundaries, settler violence, and Native revenge (300) when they chose to partner with the French as a challenge to the English.
In addition to finding school names and rivers that remind us of our shared history and spaces, we see reminders in congregational names: “Indian Creek Brethren, Indianfield Lutheran, Indian Creek Reformed, and Indianfield (later Franconia) Mennonite” (116). As a Brethren in Christ pastor, I learned that Pequea Brethren in Christ Church, a church near to me, is rooted in the Native language and ground. Many of the names of the settlers on page 216 are names that are still widely familiar in our worshiping congregations. Our legacies live on while Lenape memories and songs have been long forgotten (273).
Ruth’s musings leave us with practical questions: Do we know the land we worship on? Do we recognize our participation in the displacement of Natives? Do we call attention to the dissolution of honest agreements that led to more crooked affairs with the Natives?
Beyond these other musings that readers may derive from Ruth’s book, the book could suggest practical steps to move beyond knowledge. If we cannot rewrite history, we can retell it more accurately, and I appreciate that Ruth does this. But I hunger for steps beyond awareness. Perhaps it is the reader’s job to consider their steps from here, and that is fair. Honesty is a big step, and Ruth honors this in his book. In the end, readers are invited to live honestly in their homes, on their farms, around the rivers we still use, and in the churches where we worship, which are all rooted in the story Ruth shares with us. If telling is a first step, Ruth has done it. If honesty is a second step, Ruth helps readers accept it. The following steps are up to the reader, and Ruth’s work is a partner in that process.