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New Voices on the Shores by: Hempel, Rainer L.

trade | 297 pages | ISBN:0-921415-08-7
Year Published:2000 – German-Canadian Historical Association | Tidewater Price: $29.95

At first glance, reading Rainer Hempel’s New Voices on the Shores:Early Pennsylvania German Settlements in New Brunswick appears as a monumental task. Without including the preface, list of abbreviations, and other apparatus, the text runs 486 pages inclusive of documentation, family genealogies, illustrations, maps, and an extensive index. The thickness of New Voices, however, disguises a remarkably effective presentation that marks an important contribution to German-Canadian history and to CanadianStudies in general.
The seven chapters, epilogue, and introduction of New Voices trace an important chapter in Atlantic Canadian history: the early stage of European Atlantic re-settlement after the British Empire secured its hold over the former French colony of Acadia. From the British imperial perspective, rapid re-settlement was essential to the development of the colony and to ensuring its control over a region in which both First Nations and scattered Acadians lived. As Hempel explains, however, the reasons why Pennsylvania Germans elected to come to what is now New Brunswick were markedly different than those of the British. For the Pennsylvania Germans who settled in southern New Brunswick, migration to Atlantic Canada was part of an older and on-going history of population movement occasioned by a wide variety of factors.
What is important about New Voices on the Shores, however, is not Hempel’s investigation of the causes of German and German-American migration. On a macro level, Hempel’s argument about migration follows already well-established interpretive contours. What makes this book important is its focused analysis of a series of specific New Brunswick-German families.
Here Hempel allows the individual details of each family history to move to the forefront of his narrative. By doing so, the myriad of individual
considerations that any particular family needed to contemplate before and
after migrating can be understood on an intensely human level. Exactly why the Stieffs (later anglicized as Steeves in Atlantic Canada) or the Lutz family left Germany for Pennsylvania and then Pennsylvania for Atlantic Canada, how they lived and established themselves in New Brunswick, and the fate of these families after two or three generations, becomes the real focus of this book.
There might be a temptation to view Hempel’s focus on what we might call the micro-history of the family as more the work of genealogists than historians. This temptation would be not only be wrong, it would obscure the contribution that micro-history can make to a variety of important matters of historical study. My bet is that New Voices on the Shores will be read extensively by genealogists because of the wealth of family detail it contains, but it should also be read by Atlantic Canadian historians, historians of immigration, social historians, and those teaching Canadian Studies.
For scholars of Canadian Studies the real value of this book lies in the
last two chapters and the epilogue. The burgeoning literature on Canadian
multiculturalism includes innumerable studies of immigration. Very few explore the integration of a particular ethnic group into Canadian society in the ways Hempel does. For Hempel, the story of Pennsylvania German settlement in New Brunswick is a success story. The same argument could be made for other German settler groups in Canada and for a range of other ethnic groups, too, but exactly how re-settlement became a success is not often explained. Here generalizations about the particular contributions of one group or another to Canada are made to stand in for precise historical analysis. This is a weakness that Hempel rectifies. Through the detailed
study of individual families, he tracks not only their migration, but also their growth, marriages, the effects that later migrations to the region had on them, their increasing use of English as a language of communication, and their diffusion throughout the province and to other regions of Canada and the United States. What this book allows its readers to see is how migration functioned on the level of the family and how one group of migrants became increasingly at home in their adopted homeland, to the point where names like Steeves (Stieff) have become virtually synonymous with this Canadian region.
In making these points, Hempel reminds us that the identity of a people is not frozen at their moment of entry and that the history of German Canadians is, in many ways, a history that is about Canada . He also reminds us that the successful integration of “new voices” into the Canadian experiences need not mean the loss of a distinctive heritage in this country. This is a lesson that is well worth learning.