IT’S A HOT CanLit ticket at Calgary’s annual WordFest—onstage interviews with, and readings by, authors such as Susan Swan, Paul Quarrington and Greg Hollingshead. But the clear hit of the evening is Manitoban Miriam Toews, whose latest novel, A Complicated Kindness, is a national bestseller and in the running for the prestigious Giller Prize. In the book, Toews adopts the voice of Nomi Nickel, the confused and cynical teenage protagonist. Nomi is trapped in the small
town of East Village, a thinly disguised standin for Steinbach, Man., the strict Mennonite community where the writer, 40, spent her formative years. “Main Street,” Toews begins reading, “is as dead as ever. There’s a blinding white light at the water-tower end of it and Jesus standing in the centre of it in a pale blue robe with his arms out, palms
up, like he’s saying how the hell would I know? I’m just a carpenter. He looks like George Harrison in his Eastern religion period working for Ringling Brothers.” Laughter fills the hall. The slender blond Toews, who has a quirky, self-deprecating way about her, makes as if to leave the stage, mission accomplished. Of course, she doesn’t. Instead, Toews continues reading from a chapter that neatly encompasses many of the novel’s key themes and characters, including Nomi’s mother and sister, who have already fled East Village, as well as her uncle, a grim preacher who polices the town’s mores and whom Nomi refers to as The Mouth of Darkness. There’s even a Mennonite joke, playing on the fact that nearly everyone in East Village is somehow related: “If a Mennonite couple divorces do they still get to be cousins?” Imagine Holden Caulfield as a Mennonite, and a girl, and you get a pretty good idea of the tone and content of A Complicated Kindness (this is likely no accident, since The Catcher in the Rye is one of the books that intrigued Toews as an adolescent). And while Toews is quick to stress that her breakthrough novel—the author’s third—is a work of fiction, there are some striking similarities between Nomi’s story and her own.
The novel is set in 1980, when Nomi is 16, precisely the age Toews was that year. Nomi rebels against the strictures of her community (Mennonites are supposed to be teetotallers, and the more conservative factions frown upon such simple worldly pleasures as dancing or going to the movies). Nomi skips school, hangs out all night at the East Village gravel pit with other teenagers, drinks and smokes cigarettes and dope. Toews did all of the above—to a lesser extent than Nomi—in Steinbach, then a community of nearly 7,000, 60 km southeast of Winnipeg. Nomi dreams of escape, ideally to New York City. Toews left Steinbach at 18, after graduating high school. She lived in Montreal and London and travelled around Europe before settling in Winnipeg, where she still lives with her husband, Neal Rempel, executive producer of
the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival. Between them, they have three kids, ages 14,18 and 20 (the eldest is Rempel’s by an earlier marriage).
Over a glass of wine in an upscale Calgary bar, Toews hastens to point out that, unlike Nomi, she was protected from the harshest aspects of community life by her parents, who were well-educated and relatively liberal (her father was a schoolteacher and her mother a registered nurse and, later, a family therapist). But she had plenty of opportunity to observe a fundamentalist element in the town that still strikes her as too insular, judgmental and focused on the promise of the next life. In the novel, Nomi complains that “people here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime.” Similarly, Toews recalls that, as a teen, “I wanted to belong to an Italian family and dance at family gatherings and have a glass of wine. Other cultures seemed so much more vibrant, forgiving, fun.”
Toews, who describes herself as “an agnostic veering towards the atheist side,” has deeply conflicted feelings about her hometown. On the one hand, she fondly recalls her early childhood as a time when everyone knew each other and she had a sense of belonging. But that wore off as she started to see how people were sometimes excommunicated by the more conservative church authorities, then shunned by their neighbours, for offences such as drinking or marrying outside the faith. For Toews, the toughest contradiction of all concerns her father, Mel Toews, who committed suicide at 62 after suffering from bipolar disorder his entire adult life. Part of her still blames her dad’s death on what she calls “that freaky, austere” town where he felt compelled to hide his illness out of shame. But she also recognizes that his steadfast faith-her father famously never missed a Sunday church service—gave him the strength to carry on when others might have faltered.
The day before he died, Mel Toews whispered two words to his daughter which broke her heart: “Nothing accomplished.” She couldn’t bear his assertion that he’d wasted his life—and set out to prove him wrong. In 2000, Toews published a memoir, Swing Low: A Life, in which she tells her dad’s story in the first person, assuming his voice. She recounts his initial diagnosis at 17, when a
psychiatrist suggested he wouldn’t be able to hold a job, get married or raise a family. He did all three, though it took tremendous willpower. At school, Mel Toews was a lively and beloved teacher; at home, he often lapsed into prolonged brooding silences, punctuated by periods of manic activity. All the same, Miriam remembers him as a man of humour and compassion who dearly loved his wife and children. Which is why she decided to strip away the shroud that typically surrounds a family member’s suicide. “Keeping this hush-hush, regarding it as a shameful thing—I knew how destructive that kind of silence is,” she says. “I wanted his life to be known and honoured.” Toews’s candour about her father is matched by the way she takes on cultural shibboleths. She writes about Mennonites the way Mordecai Richler did about Jews— with humour, affection and a sharp eye for
A Complicated Kindness is a 2004 Giller Prize nominee: Random House of Canada: $29.95
hypocrisy. In A Complicated Kindness we hear of pacifist Mennonites sitting out a war while buying up farmland on the cheap from the wives of soldiers fighting overseas. The book also mocks those who drink on the sly: “An embarrassing situation for wealthy Mennonites is to meet other wealthy Mennonites at the swim-up bar at the Honolulu Holiday Inn.”
Richler often took flak from fellow Jews. Does that sort of thing happen to Toews? “Jews are way more vocal,” she says, laughing. “I know some conservative Mennonites don’t like it. But the whole Mennonite thing is silent disapproval. And I’m used to that.”
The success of A Complicated Kindness, which was recently published in the United States and Britain to glowing reviews, is welcome affirmation for someone who has toiled in relative obscurity, juggling the demands of being a writer and a mom. Not that it’s likely to go to the author’s head. “I’m just trying to enjoy this,” says Toews, before the old Mennonite fatalism kicks in. “You know,” she adds, “it’s going to make my next failure really hard to stomach.” I?il
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