Where in Canada: The Donkey Cutter

Gregory Koop’s The Donkey Cutter (Guernica Editions) is an evocative debut novel about a young woman coming of age during the tumultuous early days of 20th century Canada. Set in a Mennonite community in the Prairies, this is a story that firmly roots us into a time and place during Canada’s infancy when many endeavours, like education were nearly impossible for women. Below, Gregory shares with us the real and imagined setting of his new book and how a conversation at the Banff Centre sparked the idea for his novel. 


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The Donkey Cutter started with a simple conversation in 2011 on the shoulders of the Bow Valley in the Rocky Mountains at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. An evangelical preacher was predicting the Rapture and the End of Days. I pondered the image of an expansive plain as I watched the valley from my fifth-floor balcony. I caught a train as it wrapped around the mountains, making its way from the Pacific Ocean across the expanse of the world’s second-largest nation onward to the Canadian Prairies.During my time at the Banff Centre, I had been married to a secular Mennonite. Her family on both sides had immigrated in two of the waves of Mennonites before and after WWII. In my curiosity to tie the Rapturous tale to my ex-wife’s community and upbringing, I discovered Claas Epp Jr., a chiliast Mennonite preacher who predicted the Rapture in the late 19th century. He led hundreds of Mennonite families from Prussia and Crimea to what is now Uzbekistan for the End of Days. Obviously, it did not happen, and the real-world village of Ak Metchet, after half a century, lost every citizen to immigration. Where did they go?A century before, Catherine the Great invited farmers to break and farm the Crimea Steppe. Ukrainians and Anabaptists—including Mennonites—came on a promise that military service would not infringe upon their pacifist agrarian way of life. Successful and thriving at the dawn of the 20th century, the Russian government began forcing the Mennonites into conscription or prison.Canada before 1910 firmly existed from Winnipeg eastward to the Atlantic Ocean and on a sliver of the British Columbian coast. The Prairies existed in names only, a hypothesis.Not looking for another 54-40 or Fight!, the government offered a deal: inexpensive land for aerated farms ($10 per quarter section, broke and farmed in three years) and thousands of kilometres of new railroad stretching to the Pacific. Such ambitions looked to stitch Manitoba, already home to thousands of Mennonites, to British Columbia, which drew nearly 200,000 Ukrainian farmers, including the Anabaptists: Mennonites, Hutterites, and Doukhobors, to the Prairies.

Mennonite family members in Tofield on whom he based the book

Telling this story was sharing the conception of the Prairies. South of Winnipeg, the third-largest city in Canada by 1910, the Eastern Reserve saw an enormous influx of Mennonite farmers, including a handful of Epp’s former faction. They continued to come and spread further west across Saskatchewan and Alberta, including both maternal and paternal sides of my ex-wife’s family.The pulse of my novel asks Mareika Doerksen, Where do you belong? In my novel, winks and nods exist to names and places very real. And though Black Gully does not exist on any Canadian map, its heart beats in the Mennonite community of Tofield, Alberta. The names Creamery and Ketchamoot Road all come from my ex-wife’s family farm. Ketchamoot Creek, named after the Cree Chief, runs through the quarter section in Beaver County where I wrote the majority of this novel, and Creamery Road runs north-south on the west side of town to their farmstead. Numerous details and nuances in the novel pay homage to the sights, sounds, and textures of their Mennonite Township.

The homestead in Tofield on which the novel’s setting is based

I needed to get the place of a young woman in the 20th century right in my novel, but I also needed to create, share, and celebrate a sense of place that honoured the Prairies, Canada, and the Mennonites. Like the ornate quilts that sewed together fabrics of all kinds to create heirlooms, Canada, with the thread of railroads and patches of farms, asked the Mennonites to sew together this nation.

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Gregory Koop grew up on the border of central Alberta and Saskatchewan. Living the life of Garp, Gregory cares for his daughter, practices Muay Thai, and writes. A finalist for a 2010 Alberta Literary Award, Gregory has also been a resident of The Banff Centre’s Writing Studio. His work has been featured widely in literary journals. The Donkey Cutter is his first novel. He lives in Beaver County, AB.

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The Donkey Cutter is available for purchase here on All Lit Up or find it at your local indie bookstore using our ShopLocal button.