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

Comments on Miriam Toews, a complicated kindness

by Robert Kreider

Robert Kreider was the president of Bluffton College. He retired as professor of peace studies and director of the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College.

I resisted reading Miriam Toews' novel, a complicated kindness, anticipating that it would be just another alienated Mennonite writer bashing her home community. I have been told by those from Steinbach, Manitoba, the novelist's home town, that they "can recognize many of the people and places she describes." That which drew me, however, was the title, a complicated kindness—so hauntingly tender. Gingerly sampling a few pages, I soon was impressed by this novelist, gifted in her craft, with a sensitive ear for conversation and an eye for detail.

The story is told in the voice of Nomi Nickel, a bright, brassy, but pensive sixteen year old—a survivor in a dysfunctional family. She tells the family's story in a series of flashbacks. After lashing out at her oppressively claustrophobic community, she reflects: 'But there is kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say. When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother."

Reading this novel, listening in on teen-age talk from the seventies, is an intrusive cross-cultural experience. Should I be privy to all this family and community pathology? Add to this the discomfort of an overload of vulgarity and obscenity.

The novel is set in the Mennonite town of East Village in Manitoba, with two dominating institutions: the Mennonite church and, on the edge of town, a chicken slaughterhouse. Pastor of the church is Nomi's censorious, zealot uncle, her mother's brother, "The Mouth." The church hovers over the town as an overbearing presence with its pieties, grim rules, fear-talk of end-times, shunnings and harsh judging. Nomi observes that everyone says "it wasn't up to him or her to judge, it was up to God, while at the same time they were judging their freakin' heads off every minute of every day." Seething beneath the surface is a sub-culture of alienated youth. For the distraught of the community, the options are to knuckle under, flee to the Montreals, or to stick it out as dissenters.

Nomi is a survivor in a disintegrating family. Her older sister Tash, even more alienated, finds escape by fleeing the town with her lover Ian. Her mother Trudy—endearingly playful and quixotic—doesn't fit in this restrictive, narrow-minded community. Like her daughter, she takes flight when she is on the verge of being excommunicated by her brother, "the Mouth." Nomi, also tempted to leave town with her flaky boyfriend Travis, stays on out of concern for the care of her good intentioned, inept, conformist father Ray, a hapless school teacher. A sign of the family unraveling, the depressed Ray begins to sell off pieces of furniture, leaving the two rattling around in an empty house. "We're cleaning up," she explains to a visitor.

We follow Nomi in her meandering excursions about in the community. Despite her foul language, she is an interesting person with her dark humor and discerning observations of the minutiae of daily life. For example, she delights in putting down the phoniness of the town's Mennonite heritage village. Nomi's closest friend is fragile Lydia Voth, who is wasting away in the hospital with undiagnosed maladies. She visits "Lid" often and they talk: "I told her stuff, boring everyday stuff about my life, and she liked it. She'd laugh. I liked the way she assumed that the two of us could be friends even though she was a good Christian girl and I was a sad, cynical pothead." Although Nomi is self-centered, sassy, and vulgar, she is kind, sensitive and tender. If the community is so wretched, from whence comes this uncomplicated kindness?

I found the author most insightful in her description of Nomi's disintegrating family. This story of caring but faltering parents, bewildered as to how to cope with the pathology of a community and society in transition, surely is akin to the stories of many frustrated parents.

In this novel one observes the peril of pharisaical legalism displacing Jesus-spirited compassion. Although the author, in her novelist abandon, may present the flaws of a town with an overload of hyperbole, there are legitimate questions to ponder. For parallel reading and discussion on legalism, it would be interesting to read Joe Miller's interview of Old Order Mennonite Amos Hoover in a chapter, "The Peculiar Beauty of Gelassenheit," in the John Ruth Festschrift, The Measure of My Days.

Except for the tracings of kindness in Nomi and her parents, I found this a melancholy tale. Knowing many good people from Steinbach—Tina Block Ediger, Royden Loewen, Reg Toews, Al Reimer, Delbert Plett, and more—I wonder how a novelist might have incorporated community goodness in the story. I think of Wendell Berry's recent novel, Jayber Crow, where light and shadow, goodness and sinfulness of a community are sensitively interwoven.

As I read a complicated kindness, I also thought of all the pathology that is strewn about in the Blufftons, Archbolds, Hesstons, and Mountain Lakes of our experience. And all the goodness nurtured in these same communities. As a novelist draws from her experience to fabricate a story, she certainly is free to tell it the way she chooses. I want her to write as her creative impulses lead her and, as a reader, I want to ponder alternative ways of telling such a story.