Books are what save us.
Miriam Toews grew up in the Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She provides a detailed description of life in this isolated, conservative religious community, and its impact on her family, in Swing Low: A Life (2000).
Toews won the 2000 Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction and a second McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for her biographical memoir, Swing Low: A Life. The life she describes here is that of her father, whose voice she adopts as she recounts his heroic struggle with bipolar disease, at a time and in a place with little understanding of mental illness.
A much grimmer view of small town life emerges in Toews's 2004 A Complicated Kindness, a work precariously balanced on the intersection of comedy and tragedy. Set in the small Mennonite town of East Village - a thinly fictionalized Steinbach - the novel is narrated by 16-year-old Nomi Nickel. Reeling from the loss of her older sister and mother, Nomi and her father struggle to make sense of their past and to find a way forward into what seems to be a dark and limited future. Nomi is both astutely witty and heartbreakingly vulnerable in her bluntly honest observations of herself, her family, and her town. Toews describes the book as "a critique, essentially, of fundamentalism and that particular culture of control and punishment."
With 2011's release, Irma Voth, Toews again examines Mennonite life, this time in a small community in northern Mexico. Irma, the 19-year-old protagonist, is a transitional figure: her family has relocated from the Canadian Prairies to Mexico, and Irma, though a Mennonite, is now distanced from her family because of her marriage to a local man without her parents' permission. When a film crew arrives to make a movie about the Mennonite community, Irma works for them as a cook and interpreter. The novel's examination of familiarity and estrangement, the experience of moving between worlds, and the unquenchable urge toward knowledge and experience is challenging and moving. Irma Voth emerged from experiences in Toews' own life: she was invited by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas to appear in his 2007 drama Silent Light, set in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico.
~ The Canadian Encyclopedia
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