A Complicated Kindness.
While the teen heroine of Miriam Toews' prize-winning novel yearns to live in New York City's East Village, imagining herself and her entire Mennonite family magically employed as Lou Reed's devoted roadies, in reality the East Village location of this novel is an arch-conservative religious community living in a semi-bunkered state of siege in Manitoba. Drawn from Miriam Toews' own upbringing in the Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba, this "other" East Village is subjected to relentless irreverence by her rebellious teenage narrator Nomi Nickel. With an economy based on a kitschy, mock, pre-industrial village patronized by American tourists and by rules that decree no dancing, no drinking, no rock music, and no swimming, jewelry, or staying up past nine o'clock, there is little on offer for a spirited teenage girl such as the redoubtable Nomi. Dominated by a clannish enclave whose ethnicity is comprised of Northern Europeans of Germanic descent and whose avoidance of the worldly and the modern is an increasingly difficult-to-sustain article of faith, Nomi's reactions to her town move from witty sarcasm to anger to deep despair. What is interesting in her depiction of her situation, however, is not simply her resentment of what she feels are the rigidities of her Mennonite community, but the way in which this community is also producing its fair share of non-conformists, suggesting that things are beginning to unravel in this storybook little outpost.
So while this small Mennonite town, with its set ways and its Main street that leads its pilgrims to a sign promising eternal damnation for those who fail to follow the straight-and-narrow, appears to be operating as usual, it is important to note that this novel takes place in the 1970s, a decade to which few, if any, were immune. Even this protected religious community is not exempt from the pressures that were brought to bear on the rest of the world at this time. It is clear that the "Me Decade" of the seventies, in which expectations and values emphasized personal choice and gratification rather than social obligations, family responsibilities, or community affiliations, has even spread to the deliberately out-of-touch world of the Canadian Mennonites. As a result, Nomi and others in her small town have managed to develop a seventies-style counterculture of their own, filled with outsiders who smoke, drink, do the honky-tonk, and generally manage to bedevil the more obedient Mennonites. The most prominent among the rebels is Nomi's adored older sister, Tash--it is she, the bravest and freest and most radical member of the family -who is the first to leave town for parts unknown. Significantly, however, Nomi does not take to the road as did the proto-feminist Tash, instead staging her own rebellion within the confines of her community. Although it might seem that a community of virtuous churchgoers is an unlikely venue, Nomi can easily join its underground world. The chain-smoking Nomi runs around town replete with eyeliner, shaved head, earrings, bikini top, cut off jeans, and police boots, acquiring along the way a feckless boyfriend, birth-control pills, and drugs, for which she trades sex. One could say she generally stages the same kind of rebellion going on all over the rest of North America at that time--she has, in her own way, replicated New York's East Village within the Canadian one.
As liberating an experience as Nomi's war against all things Mennonite is, however, another important dimension of Toews' book is her exploration of how Nomi has lost the protections of her childhood and is paradoxically longing for family and community at the time when both seem to let her down. Underlying Nomi's antics is the cold fact that her family has evaporated, meaning that, as much as she has gained greater personal liberty, she has also become a lost soul. Freedom here is complicated by loss: her assumption of independence comes at a time when her family and its family values disappear, leaving a vertiginous feeling, as if she is falling forever at the same time she yearns to break free and fly away.
As a result, unlike the rest of her family, Nomi does not leave town-her antagonistic presence continues to engage her community. Similarly, despite the fact that she does not live in Steinbach, Toews herself still identifies herself as a Mennonite, and it is clear that this is her great subject. The 2004 winner of the prestigious Governor General's Literary Award, A Complicated Kindness explores both the old-fashioned world of the Mennonites and its bete noire of encroaching modernity--and although the Mennonite community is subjected to a great deal of Toews' brilliant wit, it is interesting to see the degree in which it survives her interrogation. That Nomi is still waiting expectantly in her family's house at the end of the narrative suggests that her irreverent but very serious conversation with this world will continue.
Margaret Boe Birns
School of Continuing & Professional Studies
New York University, New York