An Insider’s Pearl Diver

While Janzen offers us an ars moriendi, Julia Spicher Kasdorf finds an ars poetica for Mennonite writers in her analysis of Sidney King’s prize-winning film, The Pearl Diver. She finds that the film raises the question of the relationship between suffering and the artist-writer’s responsibility to individuals and the community in representing suffering for a public audience. It uses the Dirk Willems story from Martyrs Mirror to explore the central ambiguity of “whether sacrifice and separation can ultimately undo the Christian imperative to love and choose life.”

Good work sometimes takes awhile to find its audiences. Pearl Diver, written and directed by Sidney King, appeared on the screen in 2005 and was released for DVD in 2008, but not until last Christmas did it enter my family’s dinner conversation. One brother, a nursing professor in Colorado Springs, borrowed it blind from the public library, and only when he and his wife sat down to watch did they recognize Goshen, Indiana! Mennonite plain dress! An old friend cast in an opening scene!

The other brother, a Lancaster physician, had just rented it from Netflix on the advice of someone from church. Even my parents had already discussed it with their small group in Harrisonburg, Virginia. No one else in my family tries to make art or write criticism, but as they discussed Pearl Diver they pronounced it a film about writing—particularly the troubles of writers who come from Mennonite families. Indeed, they took up the artist/community tension that Mennonite writers have worried to shreds in various articles and conferences for the last couple of decades. My parents may not have put it in these terms, but they saw in the motion picture a Mennonite ars poetica , a work of art about art and also about its reception.

Their reading is distinctly idiosyncratic. Quite a few print and internet reviews affirm King’s first full-length film, which has won several laurels, including Best Narrative Feature at the Winnipeg International Film Festival and Best Feature at the East Lansing Film Festival. Some complain about its slow pace, especially at the beginning, whereas others praise the languid shots of Indiana landscape and faces. Signs of the independent artist’s low budget are evident, but several reviewers admit that King accomplishes quite a lot given his limits; he gets more-with-less from cast, script and score. Pearl Diver falls in the “faith and values” niche, but one review notes that it is neither smug nor exclusionary, as many of those motion pictures tend to be, thanks to its complex moral positions. Most describe the plot in terms of a family conflict enacted through strong performances by Joey Honsa, who plays Hannah, the prodigal sister who moved to the city to become a writer, and Amy Jean Johnson, who plays Marian, the conservative farmwife who stayed home.

It’s more than a sister flick, though. Like many successful works of art, Pearl Diver is locally situated but globally articulate. It draws heavily on Mennonite content and concerns, but it was not made for the church. This approach enables the Mennonite artist or scholar to work with intelligence and integrity, and the proof is in the pudding: Pearl Diver has reached broad and diverse audiences. Nonetheless, like my brothers, I want to read it as an insider, one with access to Mennonite references and obsessions. In fact, this film compels me to make a case for reading this way—at least occasionally—because it is so grounded in Mennonite matters. (A theological review by insider-suspect Linda Tiessen Wiebe is particularly worth reading.)

My Pearl Diver is primarily concerned with problems of personal memory and communal history. Past suffering gets in the way of relationship. Sacrifice, figured as a supreme virtue, also contributes to individual isolation and cultural separation. As an ars poetica, the film explores the role art might play in mediating or even healing these wounds and failures of connection. Thus, it contributes to a fundamental concern for some Mennonites: How do Mennonites, given a collective identity grounded in memories of persecution and dislocation, espouse the Gospel ethic of love, reconciliation and trust? How can individuals, invariably touched by the inexplicable violence of the world, remain open to others?

King has grappled with these questions before. His first film project, A Shroud for a Journey , narrated the spectacular disappearance of Clayton Kratz, a Mennonite who presumably lost his life on a relief trip to revolutionary Russia. Writing a letter to his sister, Kratz compared his risky mission abroad to the service of American soldiers in World War I. In a recent telephone interview, King also identified sacrifice and martyrdom as central themes in Pearl Diver , along with the exploration of a troubled family relationship. A German and music major educated at Goshen College, he said that at various points in his life he has observed that “the choice to pursue art in a Mennonite community can come at a high cost.” But does art making fall in line with the self-sacrifices of soldiering and martyrdom?

Pearl Diver opens with a sequence of quick scenes that introduce the central tension and context of the drama. We see the child Hannah running through a dark cornfield away from a crime that both killed her mother and estranged her from her older sister. Twenty years later, Hannah struggles to write on an old manual typewriter beside a window with a view of the Chicago skyline. In the carriage, her letter begs the court to deny a parole request from Sam Pope, a man involved in the crime. An improbable detail, the vintage typewriter labors to show that this city woman is tied to the past and to a subculture associated with antique objects and ideas.

Cut to a lush, rural landscape. (Has Indiana ever looked this good?) A car passes a horse and buggy on the road to signal the plain/worldly opposition once more. Next we see a close-up of Marian gracefully placing a covering on her head, ultimate signifier of non-conformity and separation from the world, as she dresses to testify in favor of Sam Pope’s release.

The rationale for her argument is grounded in the iconic Martyrs Mirror engraving of Dirk Willems, who turned to rescue his pursuer fallen through the ice, and who was consequently burned at the stake. Marian shows the picture and tells the court that her murdered mother read this story to her daughters, that her mother never thought of herself, but “always gave herself to others.” This may be predictable praise for any dead mom, but later we learn that this mother might have prevented her own death, but doing so would have sent the killers to a family down the road.

Marian’s analogy and analysis provide essential exposition for outsiders, but my sense is that self-sacrifice is rarely explained so explicitly. Instead, the ethic functions as Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus,” whereby history is embodied and internalized as second nature. The origins of a practice are so integrated into everyday life that they are not overtly conscious, and particular choices are made simply because they are what we do, who we are, or how it is. When the choice must be defended with reference to historical or Biblical precedent, it is already slightly outside consciousness. For example, in the case of the Nickel Mines Amish school shootings, I believe that nonresistance in the face of violence is so constituent to that culture that no other response was available. It took non-Amish experts to call it “grace” and interpret the community’s reaction in terms of an abstract ethic of forgiveness, Anabaptist history, or the crucifixion.

In any case, Marian’s message to the court is clear: in this community, sacrifice is a fundamental virtue; self advocacy is suspect or possibly sinful. Sam Pool’s parole is denied—maybe due to Hannah’s letter or because worldly justice operates on its own terms. Yet when a farm accident injures Marian’s child, Hannah immediately returns to the farm to help care for her niece. In the hospital waiting room, the sisters gently jockey for self-sacrificial supremacy, each denying her need for food or sleep. In this way we see that they are not entirely different, although their distinct experiences of and responses to their mother’s death divide them.

Marian copes with haunting memories through a quiet life of piety and stoic resignation to Providence. She wears modest, plain dress and belongs to a conservative family and church. Her farmer husband is a man of few words who chooses to take his injured daughter fishing rather than advocate on her behalf in a legal context. Hannah, the writer, refers to a sketchy romance with a man somewhere far away. She wears camisoles in the Indiana heat, and the camera rests on her gorgeous, bare shoulders as she toils away at the typewriter, trying to recover a fractured past. At one point, Hannah viscerally describes flashbacks of the murder night to her sister. When she asks if Marian experiences them, too, the conservative sister falls silent, then changes the subject.

Another example of suffering and a retreat into silence comes from community elder Issac, played by Yevgeny Lazarus, who shows Hannah a family photograph of the Russian Mennonite deportation. When Isaac asked his parents about their old home, they said, “Don’t talk about that.” Marian’s separation from her sister parallels the isolation of the sectarian farm community; memories of physical and emotional suffering contribute to both distanced positions. Isaac does speak selectively, at least, urging the community to come to the aid of the injured child, and he helps Hannah to gather facts for her project.

During her stay in Indiana, Hannah finishes the memoir, which her agent calls her “best work.” Marian, on a mission to deliver a covered dish to her sister, discovers and reads the manuscript. An argument between the sisters amounts to a debate about the ethics of representational art and its relationship to community. The author is “sick of the silence”—it is unhealthy—but her sister insists that the tragedy is not hers to share with the world. The writer believes that if she shares the story with others, her book could heal or “help people” who have suffered in similar ways. Her sister insists that the only person helped by that kind of writing is the author, because such books violate their subjects. To write and publish a memoir is a selfish gesture in Marian’s eyes, antithetical to the ethic of self-sacrifice associated with their mother and the martyred hero Willems.

Thus, the sisters embody familiar types—not just plain Marian and fancy Hannah, faithful and prodigal, but more interestingly those archetypal sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany. In traditional Christian discourse, these women have symbolized the principles of action and contemplation; love of neighbor and love of God or pursuit of truth; performing right works of service or just writing. The dualism could also fall along the lines of early Anabaptist and Mennonite theological debates that attempted to negotiate between an emphasis on the outer or visible manifestations of faith and discipleship, as opposed to the authority of the inner workings of the Spirit.

Hannah does all she can to make her memoir conform to Martha’s ethic of material assistance and self sacrifice. She even pledges to contribute profits from her book sale to cover her niece’s medical bills, but Miriam refuses. So strong are Marian’s principles that she is willing to sacrifice her child as well as herself, it would seem. At this point, some might wonder whether sacrifice and separation can ultimately undo the Christian imperative to love and choose life. That deep ambiguity anchors the film, as in one of my favorite scenes where a character fails to rescue an enemy who has fallen into a manure pit behind the barn, and the man sinks to his death. This disturbing moment refers to the Dirk Willems story, of course, but what does it mean? It may be a respectful repetition of a venerable Mennonite icon or an irreverent interrogation of the limits of sacrifice—or both.

Hannah’s book reveals a fact that helps to save Marian’s child, but even this does not justify its publication. In the last scene, the sisters stand on the dock where Marian once dived for her sister’s lost pocket knife until her nose bled. There Hannah slowly drops typescript into the water in an analogous gesture of sacrifice, presumably to save the relationship with her older sister. In an earlier conversation with a young musician, Hannah advised, “If you want to do what you love, you end up hurting the ones you love the most.” She frames art-making in sacrificial terms, and the all-or-nothing stakes of that “bargain” permit few choices. Now it seems that she has come to believe that the inverse must also be true: If you quit doing what you love, you end up healing the ones you love the most.

The fallacy of substitutional self-sacrifice suddenly becomes all too evident. Will throwing away her work really fix things with her sister? Presumably Hannah finally makes the right sacrifice, choosing community and relationship over the selfish desire for artistic expression. She even wears one of her sister’s long skirts in the final scene as they clasp hands and pages of the memoir drift on the water’s silent surface. But that sweet resolution trembles and threatens to collapse. We are watching a film, after all, privy to the sisters’ and community’s intimate secrets. Nothing has been withheld, silenced or separated from our gaze. The Willems story is mediated through written narrative and graphic art, available to anyone with eyes to see.

Perhaps we need to look a bit deeper at the wisdom of sacrifice and the ways it might speak to makers of art. It is also the case that sometimes in order to save a thing, you must give it away, by which I mean publish it.

About the Author

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Julia Spicher Kasdorf is author of Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields, a documentary collaboration with Steven Rubin published in 2018 by Penn State Press. Her other books of poetry--Sleeping Preacher, Eve’s Striptease, and Poetry in America--have received the Agnus Lynch Starrett Prize, The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches poetry writing at The Pennsylvania State University. With Steven Rubin, she is currently working on Home Place, a documentary project that involves listening to the experiences of farmers who live and work within 30 miles of her home in Bellefonte, PA.