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2015, vol. 69

The Disciple of Life on Suicide Watch: Reading Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and other Mennonite Women’s Writing about Familial Mental Illness

by Brad S. Born

Brad S. Born is professor of English at Bethel College.

[S]uicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew. . . .(All My Puny Sorrows, 274)

When the narrator of Miriam Toews’ novel All My Puny Sorrows (2014) quotes these words from Goethe’s My Life: Poetry and Truth, she might as well be providing a gloss on much of Toews’ body of work, which has often given sympathy to depression and suicide. First in Swing Low: A Life (2000), her account of her father’s life and death by suicide, then in the novels A Complicated Kindness (2004) and The Flying Troutmans (2008), and now again in Puny Sorrows, Toews has chosen to create narratives that evoke her own Mennonite family’s experience with depression and suicide and give voice to family members struggling to dignify the departed father, mother or sister with narrative wrought by the living, in response to the silence of the dead.

My own familial lens informs my reading of Toews’ works. I grew up hearing stories told by my mother, Bertha (Toews) Born, about her father’s life and struggle with depression, and I gather my mother’s storytelling among that of other Mennonite women writing about family members’ experiences of living with mental illness and suicide.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1947, my mother, then 13 years old, took the telephone call that conveyed the message from the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs delivering the news of her father’s death: Mr. Toews met with accident. Body at morgue. The accident was his death by suicide in the hospital’s milking barn, where he hung himself, after hanging next to him, from the same rafter, his Bible and a Brach’s candy box containing letters from home. In the vacant margins of those letters and on the blank insides of those envelopes he had written several halting messages.

Decades after taking that telephone call, my mother self-published a collection of stories about her childhood in the Mennonite farming community of Lustre, Montana. Ostensibly children’s stories written for her grandchildren, her writing can also be read as an effort to create aesthetic form and find therapeutic consolation in response to the implicit question posed by the memory of hearing Matthew 12:10 read at her father’s funeral. In that passage, Jesus invokes the prophet Isaiah to proclaim justice for the righteous and healing for the ill: A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench till He send forth judgment unto victory. But what justice and what healing are available to Mennonites grieving the illness or suicide of a family member?

Anyone interested in good, honest answers to that question should read Miriam Toews’ body of work. Because I am both entangled with my mother’s storytelling and unabashedly enthusiastic about Toews’ writing, I want to make the case for Toews’ Puny Sorrows by reading it in dialogue with three other Mennonite women’s writing about mental illness—my mother’s children’s stories, Anita Horrocks’ young adult novel Almost Eden (2006) and Rhoda Janzen’s memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (2009)—as well as situating this latest novel by Toews in her larger body of work. Using the tripartite division of the polemical, the aesthetic and the therapeutic, which I adopt from Kristin Langellier and Unfitting Stories: Narrative Approaches to Disease, Disability, and Trauma, I suggest that these Mennonite writers ultimately present little polemical content in their narratives of mental illness. Rather, through aesthetic form, they offer therapeutic consolation in the face of the fundamentally unknowable interiority of depression and suicide. Miriam Toews has done that particularly well, and Puny Sorrows is another great achievement in that art of consolation.

So, to begin with the polemical, one might ask, What kind of polemical statements are these writers making about mental illness? Using this term as do Valerie Raoul, Connie Canam, Angela Henderson and Carla Peterson, in their study of narrative approaches to disease and trauma, one might ask how these narratives reverberate in a broader collective and socio-political context(Unfitting Stories 7). More specifically, do these writers register some dis-ease with oppressive cultural norms, perhaps Mennonite cultural norms, or cast melancholy patients as prophets who unmask cultural ills? Taking such an approach is tempting, considering how prevalent such themes have been in recent decades.

In literary studies throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, scholars frequently romanticized mental illness as a liberating deviation from culturally sanctioned modes of perception. Most indebted to French theorist Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, but also drawing on psychiatrists such as R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, literary studies throughout these decades often found in narratives of mental illness a noble strain of alienation from bourgeois values and a heroic disruption of oppressive norms. For example, such was the argument in John Vernon’s The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1973), Marilyn Yalom’s Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985) and Branimir M. Rieger’s Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1994).

Does that kind of polemical theme appear in the narratives of Toews Born, Horrocks, Janzen or Toews? Perhaps. The argument for it would go something like this.

In Toews Born’s collection of children’s stories, she portrays her father Abram in stark contrast to her stoical and pragmatic mother, Helena. Abram is too generous and too sensitive to manage the real-world demands of a homestead farm. In the collection’s first story, Toews Born recounts her first train ride, a spontaneous and extravagant gift provided by her father Abram when he pays for her to ride into town on the train while he races alongside in the car, waving. In her second story, again about Abram, she recalls the medicine chest he bought from a traveling salesman because he was gullibly thrilled by its multi-colored pills and miracle glue for healing deep cuts. In a world too much with us, fraught with tragic circumstance—where the Bad Weasel slaughters ten little goslings or Peter the Sick Lamb accidentally drinks gasoline in the machine shed—Abram appears too soft, too good-hearted, to navigate its dangers.

Somewhat parallel to Toews Born’s portrayal of her father’s atypical generosity and gentleness, Horrocks’ Almost Eden’s 12-year-old protagonist, Elsie Redekop, sees her depressive mother as more gracious than other church women. After watching a Mrs. Friesen humiliate a Mexican Mennonite boy who has stolen money to gain admission into the public swimming pool, Elsie imagines how differently her mother would have reacted: she would not only have given the boy money for swimming, but bought him an ice cream, too. Elsie sees her ill mother as a model of Christian charity superior to Mrs. Friesen, the ostensibly proper and healthy woman. And Elsie notes other ways that her family deviates from community norms. Her father strays from faithful church attendance, and the family is more boisterous in its interaction than are other Mennonite families. Much as Toews Born accentuates the admirable but fragile character of her father, so, too, Horrocks’ novel praises the unconventional qualities of the Redekop family. Yet to find in that characterization some broader ideological or sociological critique is a strain. Indeed, one of the novel’s central themes is young Elsie’s desire to assimilate with her peers even while she struggles to understand her mother’s illness, and in the novel’s feel-good ending, she overcomes that estrangement and finds herself closer to her friends, her family and her faith.

Miriam Toews’ novels may certainly be read as illustrations of sociological critique, since she so frequently populates them with creative, countercultural characters suffering from mental illness. In A Complicated Kindness, that correlation between cultural dis-ease and mental illness is captured by the pun in the narrator’s name—Nomi, who is in a state of anomie. And that correlation is further evident in the name Nomi Nickel gives herself, the pioneer with her head on fire(70), a title she claims proudly from an incident when she was dressed up as a pioneer Mennonite girl for a living history exhibit and lit her bonnet with a reckless cigarette (59). This image of Nomi with her head on fire seemingly makes her a poster girl for the thesis advanced by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison in her book Touched With Fire, that there is a compelling association . . . between the artistic and the manic-depressive temperament (5). Nomi, struggling to understand what caused her mother and older sister to flee the family and the community, and how to understand her mostly silent father, entertains this self-image as wild, imaginative, mentally unstable.

In contemplating whether she and her family are touched by this fire, and how to interpret their sense of alienation, Nomi hypothesizes a connection between Mennonites and mental illness:

There is also something annoying about a man who believes in complete humility naming a group of people after himself. And using his first name. Nominites. Hmm. . . . At times I find myself imagining Menno as a delusional patient in an institute off some interstate in a pretty, wooded area. Shuffling off to Group, hoarding his meds. That I belong within the frightful fresco of this man’s dream unnerves me. I wonder what exactly happened in Menno’s world that made him turn his back on it.(6)

Nomi again suggests this connection between Mennonite separatism and dysfunction when considering what caused her mother and sister to leave the community. She remembers her mother telling her that when Mennonites fled Russia, all they needed . . . was for people to tolerate their unique apartness(148).

Of course, the apartness that Nomi’s mother Trudie and sister Tash achieved was separation from the Mennonite community whose norms Nomi is left to battle alone. Nomi wonders whether Dr. Hunter, the shit disturber in town, might be right when he ascribes mental illness to Mennonite guilt:

He’d written an article for the city paper that said our town had colossally huge numbers of depressed people. He talked about the emphasis here on sin, shame, death, fear, punishment and silence and somehow, God knows how, chalked that all up to feelings of sadness and galloping worthlessness.(134)

Nomi struggles to cope with religious guilt and community expectations, and she wonders whether that same struggle is what prompted her mother to leave: That’s what people around here are forced to do if they aren’t strong enough to live without some kind of faith or strong enough to make a stand and change an entire system or overthrow a church(241).

For readers eager to confirm the polemical theme of mental illness as a liberating deviation from culturally sanctioned modes of perception, the central character of All My Puny Sorrows—the rebellious, brilliant, gifted pianist Elfrieda Von Riesen—seems even a better illustration of that mind on fire thesis than Nomi of Kindness. The opening pages of the novel seem to forge that connection between creative deviance and suicidal impulse in Elfrieda, in the manner that narrator and little sister Yolandi (Yoli) introduces us to her older sister. Elf is the eldest daughter in a Mennonite family at odds with the socially and religious conservative norms of East Village. Father is an anomaly and oddball(13) who chooses quiet studiousness and solitude to cope with his own depression and disappointments. When Father does push back against the community, Mother tries to fight for him, but only up to a point because she was, after all, a loyal Mennonite wife and didn’t want to upset the apple cart of domestic hierarchy(13). Elf, meanwhile, blazes against oppressive community norms, deciding she will make her mark by spray-painting a symbol incorporating her initials and AMPS(All my puny sorrows, from a Coleridge poem) on the town’s water tower, fences and other landmarks.

Recalling Elf’s youthful exuberance, Yoli casts her beloved sister as the fiercely independent, creative force working against the little Mennonite town [that] was against overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces(14). Yoli’s wonder at her sister’s audacity survives into their 40s, for it is that adolescent rebellion that Yoli recalls when she finds herself once again in a hospital waiting room, again on suicide watch over Elf, who has again had a concert piano tour put on hold while mother and sister struggle to keep her alive and playing. Father is now deceased, his studious response to his own depression having ended in suicide.

Elf’s artistry as a concert pianist begins in an act of youthful rebellion, when she plays Rachmaninoff in defiance of an alpha Mennonite bishop who seeks to silence her. The bishop arrives at the Von Riesen home shortly after Elf has begun painting the town red with her AMPS mark, and he brings a group of elders as enforcers for his message. The church fathers have learned that 15-year-old Elf is planning to go to university to study music, and they have come to discourage her indiscreet longing to leave the community(17). As the men and Von Riesen parents exchange a mix of English and Plautdietsch greetings in the living room, the opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23 sound from Elf’s spare bedroom.

The men stopped talking. The music got louder. It was Elf’s favorite piece, the soundtrack to her secret revolution perhaps. She’d been working on it for two years nonstop with a teacher from the conservatory in Winnipeg who drove to our house twice a week to give her lessons and my parents and I were familiar with every one of its nuances, its agony, its ecstasy, its total respect for the importance of the chaotic ramblings of an interior monologue. Elf had described it to us. Pianos weren’t even allowed in our town technically, too reminiscent of saloons and speakeasies and unbridled joy, but my parents snuck it into the house anyway because a doctor in the city had suggested that Elf be given a creative outlet for her energies to prevent her from becoming wild and that word had sinister implications. Wild was the worst thing you could become in a community rigged for compliance.(18)

Such passages may lead some readers to find in Toews’ fiction an explicit polemical theme that interprets mental illness as rebellion against oppressive cultural systems. But to do so is to misread Puny Sorrows, and to reduce the person Elfrieda to a socio-ideological thesis, thus violating the very life that sister Yolandi so loves and celebrates.

Evidence of Toews’ discomfort with such reductive approaches appears in the prologue to Swing Low, Toews’ account of her father’s life and suicide. In that prologue, she states unequivocally that the causes of his suicide remain a mystery: In spite of many theories and much speculation, there’s really only one answer, and that is depression. A clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair(xiii). In this insistence on the inaccessibility of the emotional state accompanying suicide, Toews sounds like the poet A. Alvarez, who in his book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1971), casts doubt on tidy-minded sociological categories and theories that appear to explain suicide. The real motives, Alvarez writes, belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight(99-100).

In Puny Sorrows, Yoli refers to Alvarez’s Savage God at the point when she is recalling how she struggled to come to terms with her father’s suicide. Quoting Alvarez on writers and artists who chose suicide under Russia’s totalitarian regime, Yoli suggests we should bow in homage to their gifts and to their bright memory, we should bow compassionately before their suffering(91). She does not advocate romanticizing that suffering as an expression of counter-cultural resistance. Regarding her sister Elf’s mental illness, adult Yoli very clearly separates her fond reminiscence of her sister’s loudly voiced romantic rebellion from her internalized, largely silent, suicidal depression. Elf’s depression halts her concert piano tour. Her suicide attempts silence her music. In Yoli’s reference to the Alvarez quotation, it is no accident that she characterizes those Russian artists as people who lived, and killed themselves [my emphasis]. Toews and her narrator Yoli are interested in dignifying Elf’s life; their suicide watch is not about romanticizing her illness.

While Yoli may bow before Elf’s suffering, she refuses to dignify mental illness as an expression of noble defiance. In one angry exchange with Elf, when contemplating the notion that the only intelligent response to the ridiculous farce of life is suicide, Yoli leaves no doubt about what she thinks of that: Like you’re fucking Virginia Woolf or one of those guys, way too cool to live or too smart or too in tune with the tragedy of it all or whatever, you want to create some bullshit legacy for yourself as brilliant and doomed. . .(160). The same righteous indignation should be turned against the bunk maneuver that puts novels of mental illness in service to sociological critique. That’s not what Toews is doing.

So if Toews is not casting mental illness as rebellion against oppressive Mennonite cultural norms, perhaps she and other Mennonite women writing about mental illness are offering a different polemical argument: that Mennonite ethnic identity provides unique ways to cope with illness. To oversimplify, we might ask: So if there isn’t a Mennonite cause for illness and suicide, might there be a distinctively Mennonite healing narrative?

Gay Wilentz, in her book Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Dis-Ease, argues that women writers from cultural/ethnic minority groups function as unique custodians of culture, able to speak to the cultural dis-ease they witness and then enact wellness narratives . . . [to] heal self and community from these socially constructed diseases(1-3). Vital to this healing is a reconnection with [one’s] cultural traditions and healing practices of that culture(3).

Horrocks’ Almost Eden hints at this theme. She certainly foregrounds ethnic Mennonite identity, scattering plenty of Plautdietsch and plumemoos throughout the novel. And she does connect the faith-affirming family moment at the novel’s end with a recollection of Mennonite migration. When the young narrator Elsie breaks her mother out of Eden Hospital to orchestrate star-gazing in the countryside, her mother tells Elsie that the site where they stop to view the night sky just happens to be where her grandparents first lived when they came here from Russia(265). While this miraculous coincidence helps the adolescent narrator feel even closer to her mutta, the novel offers no sustained case for the unique curative powers of Mennonite healing practices. In fact, the hopefulness of the novel’s final scene is carried by the beauty of the stars—a generic romantic image that could function similarly for any adolescent character, in any family, in any cultural group. For her young adult reader, Horrocks writes the scene well, but this is hardly an ethnic-specific insight or cure.

Rhoda Janzen’s memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, although gleefully impious in its comic send-up of Mennonites, comes closer to fitting Wilentz’s theory of a minority ethnic healing practice. Janzen’s memoir is an unabashedly self-centered cure, an exercise in self-recovery after a disastrous year in which her bi-polar husband leaves her for gay Bob and then she almost dies in a car accident. She reaches a crisis during the year she is recuperating from surgery—the Year of the Pee Bag, as she calls it, since her internal injuries render her temporarily incontinent. Faced with a crisis, she asks, What was a forty-three-year old gal to do? and answers herself, [go] home to the Mennonites(15). Thus begins Janzen’s memoir, which then plays out this trope of her quaint, homey, butt-of-the-joke Mennonite family as the healthy alternative to the dysfunction she had survived for years with her culturally sophisticated but ill husband Nick.

Janzen’s memoir is a mix of shock-jock humor and earnest confessional bits, with a thread of sentimental appreciation for the Mennonite family she learns to appreciate—albeit through patronizing affection and comic exploitation. Besides the comedy—the riff on Sasquatch-like pubic hair, or the mockery of the backwards sister-in-law who serves red wine ice-cold—Janzen suggests faith in the restorative power of Mennonite family. So, for example, upon her first return to her Mennonite clan, after a day of answering judgmental questions about her failed marriage, redemption comes a bit too easily when Dad asks that the blessed dinner rolls be passed round once again. Janzen writes, For one golden moment no one spoke. We were all too busy helping ourselves to Zwiebach, breaking bread together(41). Elsewhere Janzen tells us she possesses the actual fifty-year-old piece of paper bearing her grandmother’s recipe for Zwiebach.

While such anecdotes play well, I don’t find in Janzen’s memoir any sustained, credible exploration of how Mennonite ethnic practices might offer particular insight into mental illness. Gauging Janzen’s purpose is difficult since she shuttles from mode to mode. In its treatment of Mennonites and mental illness, Janzen’s narrative is bifurcated, impiously funny in its treatment of Mennonite quirks and dysfunctions, but earnestly pious when she discusses Nick’s manic/depressive swings. In her comic mode, Janzen is sharp-witted and verbally clever; in her confessional mode, the memoir reads predictably like yet another inspirational survival tale pitched to an afternoon TV audience. Since Janzen doesn’t treat Nick’s illness with the same sharp wit and verbal acuity that she displays in her comic passages, the memoir fails to forge a connection between her comic sensibility and Mennonite goodwill, and Nick’s illness.

All that said, Janzen’s book is really funny, and I may be unfairly expecting of Janzen what I find so appealing in the fiction of Miriam Toews—the psychologically integral play of dark humor in the bright minds of her adolescent and adult characters, what Nomi calls the desperate laughter of her family’s strain for normalcy (146), or what Hattie in The Flying Troutmans describes as despair recycled . . . into dark comedy(27). Perhaps Janzen, too, is performing such a maneuver, but through a loose pastiche I don’t sufficiently appreciate. Janzen does suggest in one of her moments of straight discourse, in reference to Nick’s brother Flip, who committed suicide, that there may be no comfort in the face of such illness. A more generous reading of Janzen’s memoir than mine might find in her mix of comic and confessional modes a knowingly aesthetic hodge-podge that responds in disparate but authentic ways to the complexity of her husband’s illness.

However one evaluates Janzen’s memoir as an aesthetic act, she surely claims for herself restoration and healing in the wake of her trauma. In that sense, Janzen does enact a wellness narrative for herself, as do the other three writers I have discussed. But as my commentary indicates, none of these four writers make ambitious claims for a distinctively Mennonite, minority ethnic response to mental illness. The play of these narratives is indeed healing, but these writers’ claims on insight are limited and their victories muted.

Rather than polemic, they offer consolation. As verbal games played to impose order and offer consolation, these narratives are marked by the same ambivalence that Toews’ character Thebes of Troutmans finds in her game of Scrabble. This child trying to understand her depressive mother, trying to find a way in, writes in a note to her aunt: In Scrabble you’ve got a certain amount of time to make sense of your randomly picked letters, to make words, not necessarily to know what they mean, but to score points, to bluff, to bingo, to win(24, 63).

Like Thebes, these authors’ verbal games are bluffs that create aesthetic victories over the pain and inscrutability of mental illness and suicide.

Toews foregrounds this aesthetic function in both her novel A Complicated Kindness and the memoir Swing Low. In the closing pages of Kindness, Nomi reflects on how her act of writing this narrative, as an essay assignment for Mr. Quiring, has enacted her love:

[L]ove, like a mushroom high compared with the buzz from cheap weed, outlasts grief. It does. Love is everything. It is the greatest of these. And I think that we all use whatever is in our power, whatever is within our reach, to attempt to keep alive the love we’ve felt.(243-44)

Stories, Nomi tells us, are ways to inscribe the truth of love on the truth of illness: Stories are what matter, and . . . if we can believe them, I mean really believe them, we have a chance at redemption(245).

In the final paragraphs of Swing Low, Toews underscores the redeeming function of her creative narrative act by contrasting it against the actual image of her father’s suicide site. She writes:

The only certain thing we know about that day is that the sun was shining beautifully, and that it was exceptionally warm for May 13. And that, even after his body was removed, there remained scattered on the tracks and in the ditches on each side of it several bright yellow recipe cards for writing notes. For as long as I can remember, he wrote notes to himself on cards like these before going to bed, carefully arranging them on top of his shoes where he’d be sure to find them the next morning. Sadly, the yellow cards that fell out of his pocket and onto the tracks were blank.(190)

Thus Toews ends her memoir, confessing all that she does not know about her father’s illness and suicide, reminding us how inaccessible its interiority remains. And yet her narrative voices a life from that material, fashions a loving tribute in place of those blank cards.

This aesthetic act of therapeutic consolation—performed especially well by Toews, but also by Horrocks and Janzen—is no small achievement. Some readers might wish for more sociological theorizing or clinical hypothesizing but for me these writers’ aesthetic and therapeutic achievement is enough, having witnessed it in the writing of my own mother, who years after her father’s suicide took possession of the Brach’s candy container that had hung next to him, then reanimated that dead-letter box by retelling his story and recollecting her own memories, translating its silence, sweetening it by an act of artful love.

In Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews has given us yet another act of such artistry, and her notable achievement in her latest work lies in her comic vision, her capacity to embrace life through narrative that respects and gives full sympathy to suicide. For all its pathos, Sorrows is frequently funny. Toews is certainly capable of the same kind of shock humor that Janzen often employs, and some of the humor in Sorrows turns on the same formula used often by Janzen—the funny gag of having a nice Mennonite shock us with vulgarities. So, for example, while in the hospital visiting Elfrieda, Elf and Yoli’s mother reports scoring at a Scrabble game with the word cunt, and enjoying the shock of this old grandma laying down a dirty word(111). A variation on that comic bit is Toews’ savage impieties—for example, on a break from Elf’s hospital bedside, Yoli recalls her Aunt Tina’s counsel to realize the existence of God by making mental list of all the things you are grateful for, and tells her drinking buddy, Right now I’m thanking God for twist-offs(226). Or Yoli’s riff on Christmas: If Jesus actually died on a cross with nails in his hands and feet to save us shouldn’t we do more to express our gratitude than devour a turkey one evening in the dead of winter(138).

As Toews has demonstrated in earlier novels with mental illness at their center, in Puny Sorrows she sustains a darkly comic vision that transcends contrived jokes or shock gags. One way to characterize her achievement is to revise a remark made by a character in her novel A Boy of Good Breeding (1998), who says, I like my stories happy, the sadness comes creeping out of the cracks in the story like blood(235). At her comic best, one might say of Toews’ fiction that she likes her stories sad, and the humor comes creeping out of the cracks in the story like blood—elemental to character and story.

As yet another of Toews’ typical narrators—a witty, irreverent, but fiercely loyal, loving family member—Yoli achieves much of that comic effect through her first-person confessional about the family dynamics of mental illness and suicide. That said, in Puny Sorrows it is the Mennonite mother—Lottie by name, but repeatedly called simply my mother in Yoli’s narrative—who embodies a broader comic sensibility, not as hilarity or farce but as a fundamental affirmation of life. It is Mother whom Yoli pronounces the heroine of this tale, the woman whose gusto for life and capacity for adaptation enables her to survive in the face of personal tragedy. While the relationship between Yoli and her mother may not carry the same emotional freight as that between Yoli and Elf, Puny Sorrows is as much about mother’s vitality as it is about sister’s sorrows. From the very opening scene of the novel—which recollects newly married Lottie whooping and leaping through a sprinkler, cavorting with her young husband in a fashion unbecoming of a newly married Mennonite couple(8)—to its final pages, where we find Yoli and her mother setting up house in a sketchy neighborhood close to a polluted lake, wedged in between a funeral home, a mental hospital, and a slaughterhouse(270)— Lottie is the portrait of resilience and even joy.

The Von Riesen mother is not simple. She can throw down a Wordsworth poem in one moment, then in the next turn to her King James Version of the Bible on the table beside her computer. She can lay down a dirty word at Scrabble but also loves a few rounds of Dutch Blitz with her Mennonite sister Tina. She and Tina still adore their murder mysteries, their Kathy Reichses and Raymond Chandlers, even though they have buried 14 brothers and sisters. She finds solace in that oldest of friends, her faith(105), but also believes in the fight, in sparks and pugilism, not meek subservience(105). At 76, this Mennonite prairie woman can move to Canada’s largest city, start a new chapter of her life and foster a newfound love for Bluejays baseball. My mother, writes Yoli, a Rubenesque bundle of flesh and scars, a disciple of life(136-37).

That disciple of life label might be applied to each of the first-person narrators in Toews’ narratives of mental illness, for in each of those books the Toews narrator is someone who drinks life to its lees!, as reads the inscription describing Lottie in her high school yearbook (Sorrows 280). Although Nomi may not fit that mold quite as neatly, Hattie of Troutmans and Yoli of Sorrows can each be described, as is Lottie, to be an absolute embodiment of resilience and good sportsmanship, who laughs a lot and has questions about everything and no embarrassment in asking(282). And that fearlessness to delve into all parts of life—that quality of Yoli’s that leads Elf to name her Swiv, short for Swivelhead, since she turns her eye to all of life, entranced by everything she can take in—is what makes these women great narrators; it’s what makes Toews an insightful and memorable writer.

For a novelist who seeks to tell truths about a suicide watch, and wants those truths to capture the life of a beloved who is desperate to leave it, Lottie models how a disciple of life can do that faithfully. One afternoon when Yoli slips back into her sister’s hospital room, she finds her mother singing a song to her in Plautdietsch. It’s called Du. Which means You. Elf is holding her hand. It’s a song about loving forever, even with the pain of loving so hard. . .(17).


Works Cited

Born, Bertha (Toews). Toews Tales. Freeman, South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, Inc., 1990.

Horrocks, Anita. Almost Eden. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2006.

Janzen, Rhoda. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2009.

Toews, Miriam. A Boy of Good Breeding, 2nd ed. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005.

________. All My Puny Sorrows. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2014.

________. A Complicated Kindness. New York: Counterpoint, 2004.

________. The Flying Troutmans. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2008.

________. Swing Low: A Life. New York: Arcade, 2000.


Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: Random House, 1972.

Raoul, Valerie, and Connie Canam, Angela Henderson, Carla Peterson, eds. Unfitting Stories: Narrative Approaches to Disease, Disability, and Trauma. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007.

Redfield Jamison, Kay. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Simon & Schuster Free Press Paperbacks, 1993.

Wilentz, Gay. Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Dis-ease. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000.