Whatever else can or will be said about Miriam Toews’ latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows (the title is taken from a Coleridge poem), her sheer courage must be acknowledged and celebrated. In 1998, Toews’ father, Melvin, a Steinbach teacher, stepped in front of a train at Woodridge, Manitoba, after suffering for years from severe depression. She documented her father’s struggles, and the family’s response, in a memoir called Swing Low, published in 2000. In 2010, Toews’ older sister Marjorie followed almost literally in her father’s footsteps; she stepped in front of a train in Winnipeg. Miriam Toews’ response was, again, to write. You might have thought she would be stunned into grieving silence, especially after Marjorie’s death. But again, she has found words to describe, to question, to comment on these heart-breaking circumstances. And she does so with her usual narrative signature, an ironically humorous voice. This in itself is miraculous.
It is, of course, nothing new to make art out of one’s suffering. A large part of world literature has emerged that way. Yet there is a particular kind of angst for survivors of family members who commit suicide that those of us not burdened in that way can barely comprehend. Or not truly comprehend, at all. Survivors must struggle with guilt…could they have done something more, or differently, that could have steered the loved one away from self-destruction and made it possible for life to go on? There cannot be a “final answer” for a question like that.
In 2004, Toews published her best-selling novel, A Complicated Kindness, set in “East Village,” Manitoba, a thinly disguised Steinbach. Swing Low, A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows—or, to use Toews’ own acronym, AMPS—are in some way all part of a continuous narrative, the story of a family, a father, a mother, and two daughters. The names may change but the characters are quite consistent. It is a beleaguered family, and a brave one, struggling with depression and the misunderstanding and callous judgements of outsiders or “perpetual disapprovers”, as the narrator in AMPS calls them. And always the narrator, whether she is named Miriam or Nomi or Yolandi, fights fiercely for her dear ones. It could even be said that she lifts them up, memorializing them, justifying them, celebrating them, when in their own community they have been demeaned, underestimated, criticized, judged.
It happens that the family whose story is told in these books is known by many of us personally. It is a family descended from the first families who settled Steinbach in 1874. Melvin Toews (1935-1998) was the son of Heinrich A. Toews (1902-1963) and Anna J. W. Reimer (1906-1905). Melvin’s great-grandfather was pioneer teamster Peter P. Toews (1839-1882) and his great-grandmother Elisabeth R. Reimer (1843-1918), was the sister of my own great-grandmother. Anna’s grandfather was the prominent merchant Klaas R. Reimer (1837-1906)— a brother to Elisabeth R. Reimer and to my great-grandmother.
Elvira Toews, Miriam’s mother, is a Loewen, the last surviving one in her family. Her parents were lumberman Cornelius T. Loewen (1883-1960) and Helena Friesen (1892-1950); her paternal grandparents were early Steinbach residents Cornelius B. Loewen (1863-1928) and Anna Toews (1863-1902); Anna Toews was a sister to Peter P. Toews (above). On Elvira’s mother’s side, her grandfather Abraham M. Friesen (1834-1908), of Blumenort, had a reputation during his lifetime as the most learned man in the East Reserve.
Miriam Toews’ parents, Melvin and Elvira, were therefore distant cousins, sharing a common ancestry like many other Steinbachers of their generation—a fact which finds its way into the AMPS saga, as do other historical facts. Yet Melvin—depressive, somewhat unassertive, slender—and Elvira—ebullient, forceful, more rounded —were hardly alike; if anything, they were a classic illustration of the truism that opposites attract.
Miriam Toews deviates from some of the actual Toews/Loewen history for her fictional family in AMPS. The father is named “Jacob Von Riesen,” and his parents come from a Mennonite village in Siberia, having endured atrocities in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Jacob suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and by the time the novel’s action commences, he is already deceased, having committed suicide. The surname of the mother, Lottie, is, however, “Loewen,” Elvira’s real name.
The tension in the novel concerns the narrator’s sister, Elfrieda (“Elf”), a world-renowned concert pianist who cannot bear living and actively wants to die. Will she succeed in killing herself? Will her loving sister, Yolandi, actually aid her in fulfilling this dark wish? Insofar as the novel tends to follow actual events, readers can guess the answer to the first question, if not the second. But now we also come to know what it is like for those who love a family member to contend with that person’s depression, and try to keep her alive.
It is soul-searing work. One would think, or hope, that love would be enough. Sadly, it is not. Elfrieda is surrounded by some of the most loving characters imaginable—her husband, her mother, her sister, her nephew and niece, her agent. Her wish to die is stronger than the support of all these. As she did in Swing Low, Miriam Toews has harsh words for the psychiatrists who tried to treat her loved ones, and as with her father, suggests that more committed or competent therapy might have kept her sister alive. Yet after all she does not seem altogether convinced of that.
In the actual history of Steinbach, the model for “East Village, not much is known of the story of depression or suicide amongst our ancestors, yet we do make inferences about the attitudes of that time and place, which are not so different from those still persisting among us today. These things were looked upon as shameful or weak. If you were a Christian in good standing with God, then why would you be depressed? That would be a sign of lack of faith, an issue that could be corrected by the proper movement of will. On the other hand, our ancestors were also not devoid of compassion and understood that not every facet of human life yields itself to doctrinal strictures.
In his diaries, my father, Peter D. Friesen, who served as a minister in the Steinbach Kleine Gemeinde from the 1930s to the 1950s (and who officiated at Melvin and Elvira’s wedding in 1956), cites five suicides. All were men, all from Steinbach and area except for one in the Morris district. They used rifles, or cut their throats, or, in one case, a man gassed himself by running his car in his closed garage (January 1944). This was the only non-Mennonite of those mentioned, Frank Tarnopolsky, the owner of the local cinema. My father, who had campaigned for the closing of the theatre, simply notes the event, with no further comment. He does, however, refer to the suicide of a Russländer man in 1939 as a “horrible act,” and continues: “God speaks very serious. In this case we can see the power of Satan, what he really is.”1This is a judgment, of course. But my father refrains from an outright condemnation of the man himself. The suicide is evidence of the power of Satan, putting it beyond the reach of everyday human understanding. Sometimes God does not win.
Miriam Toews does not suggest that the East Village/Steinbach “oppressive patriarchy” (Tasha’s term in A Complicated Kindness) is directly to blame for her sister’s suicidality. But that patriarchy is the social-religious system against which Elfrieda feels compelled to rebel. Toews borrows, it seems, from an actual incident occurring in the Steinbach Kleine Gemeinde church in the early 1950s. Progressives were pitted against conservatives in a divisive debate about whether a piano might be allowed in the church. The issue had still not been decided when some church deacons saw an ad in the paper for a piano at a good price; they went ahead and bought it and had it moved into the church, without permission from the “authorities.” My father, as pastor, had been trying to keep the opposing factions from splitting and now was very concerned. When the conservative minister, David P. Reimer of Blumenort, came to preach in Steinbach, my father had the piano covered with a blanket. Reimer gave his sermon but did not mention the shrouded object so obvious to everyone in the building. Eventually the crisis passed, the piano stayed in the church, and the conservatives reluctantly accepted it.
I don’t know if Miriam Toews knew of that story when she wrote AMPS, but she presents a version of something like it, only transferring the time frame to the early 1970s and the setting to the “Von Riesen” household. The Von Riesens possess “a secret piano, covered with sheets and gunny sacks when the elders came to visit.” When the church elders discover that the Von Riesens harbour this sinful instrument in their home, they discuss excommunicating Jacob, but decide against it “as long as my parents oversaw that Elf was using the piano only as an instrument for the Lord.” (14) When the elders make a visit to see how that’s going and to show their concern about her “indiscreet longing to leave the community” (12) (study music at university), Elfrieda plays Rachmaninoff in another room. The elders, chastised by the ferocious independence of her playing, quietly leave.
Whether such a thing could have happened in 1970s Steinbach, I don’t know. Did the Evangelical Mennonite Church (EMC), previously Kleine Gemeinde, to which the Toews family belonged, even have “elders”’? Such a thing could certainly have happened perhaps a generation earlier, when the Kleine Gemeinde was painfully transforming itself into the EMC, and when there was still a strong sense of a community ethic to which individuals were bound to submit.
In that moment of pounding out Rachmaninoff, “Elf took control of her life.” She did, indeed, but the novel goes on to tell the story of a young woman who fell under the spell of a larger power than her will to live—her wish to die. Did that wish arise from some unfortunate genetic predisposition, or chemical imbalance? Was it simply a manifestation of mental illness? Miriam Toews doesn’t explore these questions very much, but she does repeatedly describe Elfrieda’s struggle to be an individual, independent of the community’s religious idea of who or what she should be. In the conflict between a desiccated set of prohibitions masquerading as true religion and the individual desire for freedom, did Elfrieda find that she was overburdened and give up? It is a conflict which somehow belongs at the centre of the story of Steinbach, and no doubt, many other communities as well. One could imagine Jacob and Elfrieda (Melvin and Marjorie) as warriors or artists who dared to rebel against the existing authority and paid a high price for it. Do they represent a new, reverse kind of martyr? Was there truly so little compassion for them amongst the church community? Or is that just how it looks from a devoted and loving daughter’s/sister’s perspective?
Perhaps the individual rebel is condemned to longing. Miriam Toews, in her honesty and humility (quintessential Mennonite virtues) creates characters who are individual, free, and…often lost. They do not have the option of reconciliation to the narrow-minded religion they’ve managed to escape. But still, they yearn for spiritual community. This community by definition cannot be the church. For Toews it is the family. As young Nomi Nickel, heroine of A Complicated Kindness, declares:
The only thing I needed to know was that we were all going to live forever, together, happily, in heaven with God, and without pain and sadness and sin…we were supposed to stay together, it was clear to me. That was the function, the ultimate purpose, the entire premise for the existence of the Nickel Family. That we remained together for all eternity.
Nomi’s touching words might well be Miriam Toews’ manifesto, the reason she writes. Her best work—Swing Low, A Complicated Kindness, and now, All My Puny Sorrows—tells the tale of a family, beset by all manner of troubles, but ever faithful, ever loyal to its own members. This faith is present in every word of AMPS. Jacob killed himself, yes. Elfrieda killed herself, yes. A cousin did the same. Uncles and aunts are dead (on the mother’s side of the family). Yet the connections and the love continue, “in heaven with God.” Not the heaven of the ancestral faith, but something else, hardly defined, perhaps similar to what the late mythologist Joseph Campbell was talking about when he wrote:
I’ve lost a lot of friends, as well as my parents. A realization has come to me very, very keenly, however, that I haven’t lost them. That moment when I was with them has an everlasting quality about it that is now still with me…there’s a kind of intimation of immortality in that.2
When Yolandi, narrator of AMPS, tries to persuade her sister that she might have a reason to live because her life is a gift, Elfrieda responds: “Don’t preach, okay? Gift of life. You sounded like an old Mennonite, like what’s his name.” Yolandi answers, “I am an old Mennonite. So are you.” We don’t escape our communal matrix entirely. Our individual decisions determine the plot-line of our lives, but they occur within the context of the family and the community we’re born into. We can’t change that. We can write about it though. And that’s what Miriam Toews continues to do, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.
Nelson, British Columbia