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Then the Rules Changed


SKU: 9781944132453 Category: Product ID: 51515


Nine-year-old ISAAC JANZEN wants to be a decorative painter like his best friend’s father. It’s an elegant trade in his South Russian German-speaking Mennonite Colony. He lives with fear roused by big boys’ threats that gypsies will carry him off. His wish and fear become complicated when his family emigrates to escape the Czar’s new rules. During preparations for the journey, he imagines living in a big house with many servants. He chafes at tedious tasks and assigned responsibilities, and he realizes he will leave much behind.

The train trip across Europe with 642 other Mennonites is slow, dirty, and sometimes in cattle cars. Mother is no help. His older sister acts like a grown-up, telling him what to do. At one stop, he is left behind and alone for two days. On the ship, he wants to escape the hold. When Mother is missing while he is sick, he’s convinced she has died. In the last days of the voyage, he plays with a boy who might be a gypsy, not a Mennonite.

Isaac is confused by strange landscapes, towns, farms, and language on the train trip from Philadelphia. He feels hurt when his older sister and brother go with men who take them away after they arrive in Kansas. His home is an abandoned soddy. He wonders who makes rules in this country that require him to do grown-up work, girls’ work, peasant work, and gypsy work. He’s convinced this is not the Mennonite way.

He fears he is part of the bargain an old man makes with Father for uneven oxen and a dilapidated wagon. Through summer and autumn he carries water from the creek, helps break sod, build a stable, plow a small field, plant wheat, make adobe plaster, and whitewash soddy walls. In late autumn he goes to school. He does not know the language and must sit with a ragged, stupid ten-year-old boy who somehow knows Isaac’s father is poor. He decides the boy cannot be a true Mennonite because he agreed to live with and work for a mean man. No one acknowledges Isaac’s tenth birthday. Twelve days later he finds a pie in his lunch pail and decides it is a going-away gift. He knows the next week who will take him away when the soddy owner suddenly rides up on a horse and reaches down to him.

Isaac’s brother comes home for Christmas, but he is seriously ill. As a doctor examines him, Issac sees an ugly gash. The man who took the brother away comes when the brother dies of tetanus, . Isaac holds the man responsible for the death, but Father treats him as a friend. Isaac learns the man took in Father and the ragged boy’s father when they were children because their parents were poor, and that the man paid his brother’s passage. When Father promises to repay the man, Isaac knows Father has no money. He resolves to take his brother’s place.

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