Teenager Finds Kindness in Her Quirky Mennonite Community

Monday Magazine | July 22, 2004
The early word on Miriam Toews’ new novel is good—and that word is justified. A Complicated Kindness should appeal to anyone who has grown up in a small town, chafed against an arbitrary authority, or, indeed, been an adolescent girl. This is a book both very funny and very bleak. It’s a credit to Toews’ literary dexterity that page after page, one is both amused and outraged, enlightened and depressed.

A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel and her fractured family. The novel has a diary-like style, though one senses it’s written to a specific person within the town of East Village, Manitoba, a Mennonite community in the southern part of the province. Toews explores Nomi’s attempts to cope with many typical elements of a teenager’s life­—impending high school graduation, loss of virginity, rural ennui. But Nomi’s trials, as difficult as those of any teen, are exacerbated by the Mennonite faith that governs her family and her community. Nomi’s uncle, Hans, whom she calls “The Mouth,” is the religious leader of her town. A humourless, unflinching man, he is only too prepared to excommunicate those who do not or cannot conform to the church’s exacting standards. Among those made “ghosts”—the town’s euphemism for its excommunicated members—are Nomi’s older sister, Tash, and her mother, Trudie, both of whom choose to leave East Village. Much of the book is concerned with Nomi’s attempt to understand why she and her father, Ray, have been abandoned by her sister and mother. Much of the book, then, is concerned with the domestic pain a faith with little room for tolerance and forgiveness can cause.

This would not seem fertile ground for comedy, even of the blackest sort, but Nomi is such an astute commentator, so perceptive, so intelligent, that one cannot help but smile sometimes at her precocious observations. Toews illuminates all the sharpness, all the chaos, of the teenaged mind. Describing a local metalhead, Nomi says, “He had a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off and he’d taken a Jiffy Marker and written LED ZEPPEL on the back of it and then under that the remaining two letters. I wished so badly that he had taken the time to measure the letters out and sketch them on with pencil first.” This is immediately funny; it’s also eminently recognizable for those of us of Nomi’s generation. Yet it’s more than that. It’s true.

Nomi is not merely a perceptive observer trying to solve the mystery of being abandoned. She’s desperate to figure out her own life as well, desperate to avoid a career at the local chicken abattoir, desperate also to stand by her hapless but sympathetic father. What she discovers in her quests is that East Village is a town with “no room for in between.” You are either a fundamentalist Mennonite or you are not. The problem for the Nickels is that they are all “in-betweens” and as such they struggle to cope, to get by in East Village’s doctrinal environment.

I don’t want to misrepresent this book. It has many tender moments. The scorn for the “Mennos” is not relentless, nor is it without exceptions. The “complicated kindness” of the novel’s title is often in evidence in unexpected ways. Nomi may feel she is “stuck in the middle of a story with no good ending,” but when that ending comes, it mingles sadness and hope. Possibility is gilded with fear. In short, Toews does justice to what is a very good novel.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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