Miriam Toews | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, writer (born at Steinbach, Man 1964). 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).

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, writer (born at Steinbach, Man 1964). 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 moved away from Steinbach as soon as she had finished high school, travelling and living in Montréal and then Europe. She returned to her home province to attend the University of Manitoba, where she earned a BA in film studies. She also completed a bachelor of journalism degree at the University of King's College, in Halifax. Toews has produced radio documentaries and has written for a number of magazines, garnering the 1999 National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Humour.

Toews's first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck (1996), finds humour and poignancy in unexpected locales. The protagonist is a teenaged single mother, on welfare, who moves to a low-income housing project in Winnipeg to escape the emotional trauma left in the wake of her own mother's death. Toews invokes, ridicules, and defies class-based stereotypes in her portrayal of these lively characters' daily struggles, from cheap strollers to lost love, and joys. This book won the 1996 John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer, and was adapted into an award-winning drama by playwright Chris Craddock.

A single mother and absent parents also figure in Toews's second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, winner of the 1998 McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Set in Algren, Manitoba, the plot follows the homecoming of Knute McCloud and her daughter, Summer Feelin'. Algren is a place with more than its share of eccentric inhabitants, but Toews is the gentlest of satirists, creating affection in her readers for her ridiculous characters and their foibles.

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." Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the novel won the Governor General's Award, and was chosen as the novel that all Canadians should read in the 2006 Canada Reads competition.

Miriam Toews' next novel, The Flying Troutmans (2008, winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize), returns to the territory of family crisis, as narrator Hattie returns to Manitoba from Paris to assist her suicidal sister Min, and to embark on a road trip though the US with Min's two children to locate their father. Like Toews' earlier works, the novel treats despair unflinchingly and yet finds comedy in the everyday events of life. Throughout, Toews' wry, constantly assessing voice masters detail and emotional nuance.

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. Toews was nominated for best actress at the Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences' Ariel Awards for her performance in the film.

Miriam Toews currently lives and writes in Toronto.

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