In Praise of Prairie Literature
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, 2004
A Complicated Kindness has been on national best seller lists for several weeks - a fact easily confirmed if you try, as I did recently, to locate a copy. Set in a small Mennonite town in southern Manitoba, it is the most recent of Miriam Toew’s four books – one of which includes a first-person ‘memoir’ plus, now, three novels which feature the zany lives and compelling observations of young Manitoba women.
Have-a-Life housing project, better known as Half-a-Life, provides the setting for Summer of My Amazing Luck which chronicles the down-and-out adventures of two eighteen-year old single moms in search of their kids’ dead-beat dads. A Boy of Good Breeding follows the efforts of eccentric mayor Hosea Funk to keep fictional Algren, population 1,500, in the race to be Canada’s smallest town. Published in the 1990s, these books garnered awards and established the young Toews (pronounced Taves) as a writer to watch.
Her two subsequent books demonstrate a maturing sensibility and a writer deploying the craft and unsentimental detachment necessary to incorporate yet transcend a personal history with extremes of culture, geography and emotion.
Swing Low: A Life recounts the life of Miriam’s father Mel as he would have told it. A faithful Mennonite, the schoolteacher is diagnosed with manic depression at an early age. Believing that “there was no hope for the world, that evil would inevitably triumph over good, and that there was, therefore, no point in striving for goodness,” he also concedes that “the struggle to be good was the purpose of life.” Mel Toews creates a good home for his family but one from which he is apart. A whole year, for instance, passes without his uttering a word. Finally, he gets out of bed, dresses and heads out the door. On the railway tracks, he waits for a train which inevitably arrives.
A Mel Toews-like character appears in A Complicated Kindness as the father of Nomi Nickel, the novel’s adolescent narrator. Given to long silent spells in his yellow lawn chair, Ray Nickel is a looming presence in Nomi’s life. So is Happy Family Farms, the chicken abattoir on the outskirts of East Village, Manitoba, and the town’s only employment opportunity. There’s also a Main Street, “book ended by two fields of dirt … in perpetual fallow” that goes nowhere.
But it is the Mennonite community as judge, jury and excommunicator and its role in the disappearance of Nomi’s high spirited mother and sister that is central to Toews’ novel.
“We’re Mennonites,” Nomi writes. “As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Ironically, they named this place East Village, which, I have learned is the name of the area in New York City that I would most love to inhabit.”
Overcoming the stultifying effects of a closely knit community or simply coming of age are staples of Canadian literature. In spite of its 1970s setting, A Complicated Kindness slips into this iconic prairie literature mode. Here, the isolated intellectual finds his voice in a void of uncaring or absent characters and strives for meaning in an indifferent environment. In East Village, Manitoba, Toews weaves this theme with raunchy humour and the skill of a crime writer. The only missing element is a train whistling wistfully past, though even this “invitation to sin” is supplanted by Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie or, for the curious, irrepressible teenager, by sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Making out in the back of a truck, a high in a field or pining for Lou Reed … all suggest that Nomi too will soon be goin’ down the road. In the end there’s hope.
A Complicated Kindness reconciles the psychic threads running through the unusual but rich life of a talented writer who has experienced loss, rebellion and redemption. The forty year old Toews, now resident in Winnipeg with her husband and two children, is clearly ready to do her major work.
Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.
Read her previous columns at www.margretkopala.com.