new Mennonite Life logo    June 2005     vol. 60 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Not Just About Mennonites: Literary Contexts for Reading Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness

by Phyllis Bixler

Phyllis Bixler is professor emeritus of English at Southwest Missouri State University,Springfield, Missouri. She has also taught at Bethel College, Kansas State University, and Bluffton College.

Like A Complicated Kindness (2004), (1) Miriam Toews' previous novels, Summer of My Amazing Luck (1996) and A Boy of Good Breeding (1998), as well as her fictionalized memoir about her father, Swing Low, A Life (2000), are preoccupied with certain kinds of family and social life. In all four, for example, fathers are physically or psychologically absent. In the memoir, Toews tries to imagine what it was like to be her father as his mental illness caused him to withdraw from society, his family, and eventually life itself, when he committed suicide. A Complicated Kindness shows how a father's somewhat similar psychological withdrawal affects his teenaged daughter, and also, apparently, his wife and older daughter who have left town. The narrator of Summer of My Amazing Luck and her friends are rearing children whose fathers are absent or unknown. The title character in A Boy of Good Breeding is told by his mother on her deathbed that he had been conceived during a brief tryst with the man now prime minister of Canada; and another main character has a four-year-old daughter whose young father left town when he learned about the pregnancy.

As for the larger social context, Toews' often contrasts a small community with the world outside of it, typically represented as a city. In A Boy of Good Breeding, the mayor hopes to call the world's attention to his small town by luring the prime minister there for a holiday visit. In Summer of My Amazing Luck, the mothers and children in a government-supported housing development form a small community enclave inside the city of Winnipeg. Swing Low and A Complicated Kindness are set in a small, predominantly Mennonite community outside of Winnipeg; both feature characters who move or long to move to the city.

Judging by what Miriam Toews has said about herself in interviews and what one can glean from her memoir about her father, much of this portrayal of family and community life has an autobiographical basis. But that is not why she has won awards and good reviews in the mainline literary press. Or even, probably, why her work has elicited this group of essays in Mennonite Life. It is primarily her artistry that nominates her for our attention.

Some theories of a famous Canadian critic of a previous generation, Northrop Frye, offer one way to understand and appreciate that artistry. (2) Underlying Frye's "anatomy" of the storied universe with which human beings have surrounded themselves is the assumption that an individual story resembles other stories at least as much and probably more than it resembles life. Recognizing a novel's literary forbears or certain genre expectations it fulfills can help avoid naïve assumptions about what it reveals about the author's own life or about the breadth of its applicability to any life outside it. In addition, Frye's anatomy of archetypal narrative types (often based on examples by Shakespeare, the subject of one of his books) allows us to recognize important fictive dimensions in Toews' books as well as to admire how she challenges herself by writing books that are quite different from each other.

Toews' first two novels, Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding, bear many earmarks of Frye's definition of comedy and romance. Adults in important ways finally "grow up"; there is an emphasis on sexuality and fecundity; babies are born and there are signs of personal rebirths; severed families are reunited and new families are formed; each book ends with some kind of community celebration. Swing Low, on the other hand, tips toward tragedy as Toews portrays her father's heroic, lifelong battle with mental disease and the community's response to it—especially denial—before he is finally undone by them. And Frye would probably say that A Complicated Kindness was written in the ironic or satiric mode, which contrasts the ideal with the actual and dramatizes how characters' expectations are reversed rather than fulfilled. In this novel, unlike Toews' earlier ones, families fall apart rather than unite; and the community is shown to be primarily destructive rather than supportive.

Perceiving contrasts between the ideal and the actual—and perhaps exaggerating them—often comes easily to adolescents, whose still-unmodulated idealism may pivot into despair or even cynicism when they discover how the world so often falls short. Such as the seventeen-year-old narrator of A Complicated Kindness, Nomi Nickel. And two earlier young-adult narrators Toews references in her novel, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in the novel by that name (1885) and J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye (1951), as well as a host of narrators of subsequent young adult fiction, such as Paul Zindel's The Pigman (1968), Alice Childress' A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1973), and various novels by Judy Blume.

To many readers, such young-adult voices sound raw and abrasive, especially if the author adopts a certain verisimilitude in recreating a teenager's unsupervised language. All of the above titles appear high on lists of books eliciting censorship requests; and so it is probably not surprising that A Complicated Kindness also has been controversial. In addition, many readers much prefer comedy, romance, and even tragedy to irony/satire with its emphasis on the meaner aspects of both society and human nature.

For example, while objectors to Huckleberry Finn have often focused on its language—its colloquialism in its own time and its use of the word "nigger" more recently—they are undoubtedly offended as well by the novel's ruthless skewering of "respectable" society, such as its portrayal of the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords who listen to sermons on "brotherly love" together in church on Sunday mornings and then return to their usual business of brutally killing each other. Doubtless in his portrayal of these families, Twain exaggerated cruel hypocrisies he observed in Hannibal, Missouri, where he grew up; and needless to say, the small and primarily negative samples Huck and Jim encounter on the banks of the Mississippi do not represent all of Southern antebellum life. The exaggerations of such satire, however, challenge us to consider how we might have more of the exposed human weaknesses than we usually like to think.

Turning to A Complicated Kindness, Toews may well be exaggerating how a power-hungry leader leagued with a punishment-driven theology can exert tyrannical control over a community. Accordingly, many Mennonites' first reaction to the novel (like mine) might be "That's not my church! That's not what all Mennonites are like!" However, further examination of the novel combined with thoughtful examination of oneself and one's church community may uncover subtler signs of inappropriate control that might have otherwise gone overlooked as well as insights about why some members eventually leave.

On this latter score, there are additional parallels between Huckleberry Finn and A Complicated Kindness. Both young adult narrators are orphans—Huck's father is killed near the beginning of his novel and by the end, Nomi has been abandoned by her father as well as, earlier, her older sister and mother; and, during the course of the novels, we watch these young adult narrators become untethered from the community as well. In both cases, this untethering involves a questioning of religious concepts they have been taught. Huck believes that if he breaks the law by assisting runaway slave Jim, he will be forfeiting heaven. "All right, then, I'll go to hell," he says as he tears up the note he wrote to Miss Watson telling her where she can find her "runaway nigger." Having been similarly taught a God interested primarily in punishing social deviation, Nomi prays, "Dear God, . . . You have a terrible reputation here. You should know that" (100); and Nomi's destructive behavior, such as her use of drugs, alcohol, and sex, may in part be her own way of saying, "All right, then, I'll go to hell."

By the end of both novels, the narrators are poised to leave their communities for an uncertain future. Huck says he's "got to light out for the Territory" because "Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before" (244). And in a note her father wrote Nomi before he himself left town, he advised her to be equally dismissive of what she leaves behind; echoing Jesus' advice to his disciples when they encounter an unwelcoming town (Luke 9:5), Nomi's father wrote, "remember, when you are leaving, to brush the dust from your feet as a testimony against them" (240).

If in its portrayal of a young adult's gradual but finally decisive unmooring from the community within which it was reared, A Complicated Kindnesses bears many resemblances to Huckleberry Finn, it resembles Catcher in the Rye in offering a more rounded portrayal of its narrator's character. Following a preoccupation with adolescent psychology that began early in the twentieth century, Salinger and Toews both capture many characteristics typical of that stage when one teeters back and forth between childhood and adulthood, such as desiring to be treated as an adult yet nostalgic for a childhood remembered, perhaps falsely, as carefree; masking extreme self-consciousness with flagrant posing among one's peers; swinging mercurially in mood and from low-self-esteem to self-assertion and harsh judgment of others.

Unfortunately, Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Toews' Nomi Nickel have a number of stresses in addition to the usual challenges of adolescence. Both, for example, are suffering profound grief, for the most part alone—in Nomi's words, they are "little islands of grief" (28). When Holden Caulfield was thirteen, his eleven-year-old brother died of leukemia, and the death of this idealized sibling is still much on his mind four years later; in coping with this grief, Holden seems to have little help from his parents, his mother being apparently too absorbed in her own grief and his father being preoccupied with his law practice. Doubtless this grief is a major cause of Holden's preoccupation with death—at one point, he thinks he too has cancer; he considers suicide, recounts the story of another boy who did, and imagines his own funeral.

Grief is central to an understanding of Nomi and her family as well. Like Holden, Nomi was at that especially vulnerable age of thirteen when her sister and mother left town; when the novel opens, three years later, Nomi and her father Ray do not know where they are. Far from assisting Nomi deal with her grief, her father exacerbates it by withdrawing into his own entropic spiral, gradually selling off their furniture and spending hours sitting in the front yard, near catatonic, staring at the highway. Considering this daily enactment of grief and the fact that Nomi has considered the possibility that either or both her mother and father have committed suicide (54-55, 245), it is probably no wonder that like Holden, she is throughout her own narrative preoccupied with death.

Given the volatility of such young adult narrators, we do well to stand back and ask whether their interpretations of what they narrate are entirely reliable; far more than with Twain's Huckleberry Finn, we need to recognize the bias and partiality of the human lens we are given. For example, how much does the lack of authentic human relationships and resulting anomie dramatized during Holden's winter weekend in New York City reflect a typical characteristic of mid-century urban life and how much does it result from Holden's own sad inability to connect, given that in the novel's last pages, we learn that he has been composing his narrative within some kind of mental health facility? And how much authority about Mennonite life in general and her own church and community in particular should we attribute to a sixteen-year-old who has some reason to blame them for the breakup of her family?

Indeed, significantly more than Salinger, Toews calls attention to certain limitations of her narrator. Throughout the novel, for example, we are reminded of what Nomi does not know. When Nomi was younger, her mother, Trudie, often deflected her search for information by changing the subject or by offering half-truths. When Nomi asked what her mother meant by saying, "I envy that dog its freedom and obliviousness" for example, Trudie asked Nomi how her friends like her new haircut (52). Or, after Nomi observed at some distance a heated argument between Trudie and her brother, Hans—"the Mouth," the church leader who apparently engineered the fundamentalist takeover and spearheaded the excommunication of first Tash, then Trudie, and, eventually, Nomi herself—Trudie told Nomi it was "pfff, nothing," just a request for Trudie to work in the church library (94). As a result of this kind of doubtless well-intentioned desire to protect thirteen-year-old Nomi, she was only vaguely aware of the specific problems that led to the departure of Tash and Trudie soon thereafter (109). And when Trudie left, she gave Nomi no explanation of the various causes. There was even no verbal farewell. The night before Trudie left, she simply cried "softly" by Nomi's bed before closing the door "quietly"; and when Nomi woke the next morning, she says, "I hadn't known then that she had left for good" (189-190).

As the novel ends, there is still much that Nomi still does not understand. On the surface, it seemed that her parents loved each other deeply. On the other hand, some letters Trudie left behind indicate that she had been having an affair with Nomi's English teacher, Mr. Quiring. And so Nomi considers "the possibility that my mother had never really loved my father, or that she had loved him years ago but had since stopped loving him, or that she loved him but not more than the idea of being free. . . . I don't know" (244-245). Obviously, A Complicated Kindness is not just about Mennonites and not just about its narrator; it's also about families—about what holds them together and what pulls them apart; about societal influences, inner family dynamics, individual personalities, and how all of these interact.

It is also about hope. As bleak as it may seem to many readers, A Complicated Kindness is considerably more hopeful than Catcher in the Rye. At the end of that novel, Holden has made little if any progress toward understanding himself; and he has little motivation, or perhaps insufficient strength to do so. He simply stops his narration abruptly, with "That's all I'm going to tell about." He says he doesn't "know what to think about" "all this stuff I just finished telling you about," and he declares that his psychoanalyst's questions about his future are "stupid" (276-277). Nomi, on the other hand, has considered "a whole bunch of perversely complicated ways" to understand the complications of her experience (243). And despite her awareness of perverse ways we sometimes express our love—such as her belief that her father left town because he knew she herself would never move on with her own life so long as he needed her to care for him—she is able to declare that "love . . . outlasts grief. It does. Love is everything. It is the greatest of these" (244).

Moreover, despite her father's advice to brush the dust from her feet as she leaves town, Nomi ends her narrative describing happy memories of her childhood there and by giving it credit for much of the hope she takes with her: "I've learned, from living in this town, that stories are what matter, and that if we can believe them, I mean really believe them, we have a chance at redemption" (245). Perhaps Nomi has found a certain redemption in writing this story, which we eventually learn was written to fulfill an English assignment for Mr. Quiring. Perhaps, putting it down on paper for someone she has a right to believe has wronged her has kept alive her ability to forgive—demonstrated earlier toward Hans, "the Mouth" (172)—as well as her determination to avoid the self-poison of desiring revenge. Paraphrasing one of her earlier favorite quotations by Gauguin (73), she says, "Life being what it is, one dreams not of revenge. One just dreams" (244). Perhaps writing her story has also allowed her to forgive the town she is leaving: "East Village has given me the faith to believe in the possibility of a happy [family] reunion" "somewhere in the real world" "someday" (245-246).

In his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1922), T. S. Eliot argued that recognizing a work's literary forbears does not necessarily denigrate it as derivative; rather, knowledge of the tradition to which it belongs can help us appreciate how the artist's individual talent has created something new and different. Miriam Toews' multi-faceted A Complicated Kindness makes a worthy contribution to the tradition that has been identified here; it stands up well beside two preeminent classics; it deserves the critical acclaim it has received.


1. Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness, A Novel. New York: Counterpoint, 2004.

2. For this somewhat simplified paraphrase of Northrop Frye's theories to be found in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), I am indebted to Anita Moss and Jon Stott, The Family of Stories, An Anthology of Children's Literature (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1986), pp. 1-5