Between the pages
Essays explore Miriam Toews’s body of work in accessible, thoughtful prose
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In this thorough, detailed monograph on the work of Miriam Toews, Sabrina Reed looks at the Manitoba-born writer’s recurring theme of resilience and the ways it plays out across her fiction.
Reed, a professor in the department of English, Languages and Cultures at Mount Royal University, takes a thematic approach, dividing the material into pairings of books that focus on a specific aspect of resilience. In four chapters, she explores characters who endure — and sometimes prevail against — oppressive systems, whether that’s fundamentalist religion, unfeeling bureaucracy or violent patriarchal authority.
Examining A Boy of Good Breeding and A Complicated Kindness, Reed looks at Toews’s notion of home as both refuge and potential prison. The latter book, which won Toews the Governor General’s Award in 2004 and also stirred up some controversy, depicts East Village, a fictionalized version of Steinbach, as a place of intrusive surveillance and destructive shaming and shunning. (Reed quotes Toews’s report of her mother’s response to the novel: “Well, Miriam, it’s a good thing we’re Mennonites. At least you won’t get shot.”)
Looking at The Flying Troutmans and Summer of My Amazing Luck, Reed reflects on Toews’s vision of the redemptive, resilience-building road trip. As Reed points out, this is not the Jack Kerouac variety, all about the freedom of the endless highway, but a female version that involves travelling with children, which means “diapers, felt-tipped markers, and unglamourous Ford Aerostar vans.”
Reed positions Women Talking (now also an award-winning film by Sarah Polley) and Irma Voth as feminist reconfigurations of the Mennonite migration narrative. In these works, women make the decision to go into uncertain exile in order to escape violence within their families and communities.
As suggested by Reed’s title, literary works often walk the line between lives lived and lives imagined. Echoes of autobiographical events run through Toews’s novels, and in All My Puny Sorrows and her hybrid memoir Swing Low, she faces directly the deaths by suicide of her father and sister. Reed looks at how Toews uses autofiction to write her way toward resilience, while also examining the delicate ethical issues that come out of transforming other people’s lives into words.
Reed’s research ranges wide as she connects Toews’s art to larger social, political and historical contexts. She discusses, among other things, issues around suicide and suicide survivors; social and medical responses to mental illness; and theories of both personal and communal resilience. She describes the wounds of the Mennonite diaspora, framing famine and violence in Russian in the 1920s and the resulting Mennonite migration as a “break event,” as one scholar calls it, a defining dislocation that persists through generations and shapes a community’s sense of identity.
While doing a detailed dive into the themes of Toews’s oeuvre, Reed could perhaps look more specifically at the ways these themes are expressed through Toews’s language, especially through her deft handling of tone and her frank and funny narrative voice.
Still, Reed covers a lot of ground, and her writing is admirably clear. She works with complex and difficult issues and ideas without resorting to jargon, making Lives Lived, Lives Imagined an important piece of scholarship that is also accessible to general readers.
Free Press pop culture columnist Alison Gillmor is excited to see the new Women Talking film.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.