Nomi Nickel, the 16-year-old narrator of Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness, is one of the damned. Abandoned by her family, betrayed by her boyfriend, shunned by her community, she sits alone in an empty house, dreaming of lost happiness. This is the unpropitious end-scene from which Toews, winner of the 2004 Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award, unspools a blackly comedic tale of teenage life in East Village, a one-church Mennonite town in southern Manitoba where pastors rule and apostates receive no quarter.
We’re Mennonites . . . the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager . . . Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
Menno Simons was a Dutch heretic, the spiritual leader of a North European Anabaptist faction that emerged from the Münsterite rebellion of the 1530s. Although less insurrectionist than its antecedents, Reformation Mennonism was a sternly dissentient creed, loathed by Protestant power-brokers, but its puritan radicalism soon eroded into defensive conservatism. Modern Mennonism, like most Protestant confessions, is sharply divided between hardcore traditionalists and liberal modernisers – although to describe any brand of Mennonism as ‘liberal’ is pushing it. Toews describes her own background as progressive Mennonism, but A Complicated Kindness is a novel about zealotry, about bigotry and intolerance dressed up as religious conviction. The mentality it describes is not universal in Mennonism nor confined to it. In an age of holy war, Toews’s protagonists have plenty of spiritual cousins.
Mennonites began arriving in North America in the 17th century, with big migratory waves in the late 19th century and again after the First World War, as Prussian Mennonites who had found refuge in tsarist Russia fled the new Soviet Union. Some thirty thousand Mennonites settled in Western Canada between 1870 and 1930, in rural enclaves that remained closed and German-speaking for many decades. Southern Manitoba experienced one of the largest influxes, with Toews’s hometown of Steinbach – the original of East Village – becoming the centre of a network of communities living in conditions of antique austerity. Like their sister sectaries the Amish, these old-world pioneers soon found themselves confronted by more forward-looking, assimilationist elements. Today, with the majority of North America’s half-million Mennonites living in cities, the peasant dress and beards and horse-drawn buggies have mostly gone, to reappear as theme-park nostalgia. Steinbach, once a homesteading commune, now offers tourists the Mennonite Experience in a sector of the original town restored and marketed as a heritage village. Like most Steinbach teenagers, Toews worked in the museum during summer vacations, churning butter and posing for tourists.
Hardline Mennonism is a religion of prohibition. Injunctions are its credal currency; no aspect of life, however trivial, is left untouched. Mobile phones, soft-top convertibles, chewing gum, coloured home appliances: all are forbidden. Avocado fridges and pop music are particular bugbears (‘in the Mennonite dictionary, hell comes after rock’n’roll’). All earthly pleasures are proscribed, the delights of eternity hymned incessantly. Life in East Village, Nomi reflects, is designed to be a ‘no-frills bunker in which to live austerely, shun wrongdoers and kill some time, and joy, before the Rapture’. Funeral announcements are the favourite radio listening. ‘There’s not a lot of interest in the present tense here.’
A Complicated Kindness follows Nomi from the onset of puberty at 13 to her sexual initiation at 16 by a boy who screws and dumps her. It’s a tough coming of age, made surreal by the gradual disappearance of her family, beginning with the ‘better-looking half’ – her older sister, Tash, and their mother, Trudie – and ending with her father Ray’s departure three years later. The author of this break-up is Nomi’s uncle Hans, the town pastor, a small-town führer warped by sexual disappointment and envy. In his hands Mennonism is a deadly weapon. His instrument is the ‘shunning’, a particularly savage form of excommunication in which the apostate is forbidden all verbal or physical contact, even with family members. One by one the Nickel women are threatened with shunning, and the prospect of death-in-life rips the family apart. ‘That’s the thing about this town – you’re in or you’re out. You fall into line or you fall.’
‘Fall’ is a keyword. A Complicated Kindness is an inverted Genesis, a parable of fallen innocence with religiosity as the serpent. In East Village the miseries of adolescence are apocalyptic. Like all born-again Christians, Mennonites see sin everywhere, even in newborns, who, if they die in infancy, are spared damnation only because, unaware of their fallen condition, they cannot repent it. With puberty, when free will kicks in, this probationary state of grace vanishes. An adolescent finds herself at a crossroads where she must opt either for spiritual rebirth, marked by baptism, or for eternal hellfire – ‘yikes’, as Nomi says when this choice confronts her. Tash, who likes sex and John Lennon and string bikini underwear, is clearly hell-bound, despite her little sister’s fervent prayers on her behalf. Nomi too has a Dionysian streak, but her every hedonistic impulse is accompanied by the sharpening of diabolic knives. Nomi’s East Village is an emotional abattoir, a Happy Family Chicken Farm – her destined workplace after leaving high school – where small creatures are routinely slaughtered. ‘This town is so severe. And silent . . . The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of happiness . . . The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime.’
The story veers between past and present, horror and hilarity, with Nomi’s biting wit enhancing the ambient lunacy. The Nickels may be avatars of prelapsarian bliss, but the rest of their town is loco. Melancholia, suicide, a gulag stupefaction – even the weather, in best Last Days fashion, is moonstruck. It all feels absurdly melodramatic until we gradually realise that Nomi’s happy family is a myth – her mother is an adulterer, her father is mentally ill – and she is having a breakdown. ‘I think I’m dying . . . you know?’ she tells an indifferent East Villager. ‘I feel halfway there.’
Breakdown stories are typically genre productions: sentimental, tragicomic, TOA (triumph over adversity – the perennial favourite). The misery needs another language, beyond these set-piece narratives, to pack real punch. Religion, with its rich repertoire of lurid symbolism, is a terrific vehicle for this, especially in the case of pubescent children already caught up in dramas of guilt and retribution. The first stage in the Nickel family break-up, sister Tash’s departure, coincides with Nomi’s first menstrual period; her father leaves just after she loses her virginity. Between these is a sexual coming of age filled with destructive energy. Nomi bites herself in her sleep, smokes dope until her brain sizzles, shaves her head like a religious penitent. What little energy she has goes into caring for her best friend – a girl en route to an asylum (called Eden) with a mysterious psychosomatic ailment – and her men: her father, to whom she ministers with unfailing tenderness, and her boyfriend, Travis, who seems a real sweetie until Nomi, in scenes of wonderful poignancy, inveigles a doctor into putting her on the pill, drinks until she’s pie-eyed, and then flops into bed with him for a disastrous fuck. ‘Move with me,’ Travis whispers to her. ‘To Montreal?’ the sozzled Nomi asks. A few days later, finding Travis in bed with another girl, she sets fire to his truck then slopes off to sleep with her dope dealer in exchange for some grass. She returns home to find she’s been shunned. ‘Yikes, shit,’ she says to her father, who takes the car keys and leaves.
I was raised partly by Mennonites. My hometown is Saskatoon, a small city about three hundred miles from Steinbach in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan. My mother was a lawyer who hired women to clean the house and to look after my sister and me. Many of the women she employed came from nearby Mennonite communities. I remember them as a long line of girls with chapped hands and clumpy shoes and names like Erma and Wanda, Thiessen and Grebel. Many spoke Low German. Most vanished after a few months, as my mother lost patience with their countrified manners and stodgy cooking, their timid rigidity. One, a pale skinny girl, wrote a long letter to my mother after she left, begging forgiveness for stealing a pack of chewing gum. Another stayed in her room weeping. One, a plump, bubbly girl called Liz who arrived when I was nine or ten, became my friend. Liz had backsliding tendencies. She yearned to wear pretty frocks and to go dancing. Spying an opportunity, one day I persuaded her to take me to an Elvis Presley movie. It took all my persuasive powers to get us to the cinema. Once there, as the lights went down, I felt her stiffen beside me, then start to tremble. Appalled, I began trembling in turn and the two of us sat there quivering with guilt and misery through the entire film. I don’t think she ever forgave me.
My initial insouciance about Liz’s religious scruples was typical of my family. My parents were left-wing atheists who looked down on churchgoers of every kind. Their bookshelves were crammed with Marx, Freud, Darwin, little pamphlets from Moscow with titles like The Case for Scientific Socialism and Historical Materialism and Its Enemies. All religions were hokum – including the conservative Judaism of my mother’s family – but Mennonism, with its literalism and old-worldism, was a species of rural idiocy. Many of the girls who worked for us hadn’t finished high school. My parents were formidable, even to their peers, and impatient with any viewpoint that conflicted with their own. Bibles and prayers were permissible, but only in the girl’s room; religion was not to be discussed. So I was barely aware of these girls’ beliefs, until Anne Guenther arrived.
Anne was a bright, good-natured woman, and I took to her immediately. I’d like to think that she also liked me, that something in my 11-year-old self attracted her apart from my spiritual condition. Maybe so, but I was a lonely, curious child – a sitting duck for conversion – and her campaign began almost immediately. Books were her ammunition. I would devour anything with a plot. I had read Bible stories in school and enjoyed them, but now Anne and I read the Bible together and talked about it: my first taste of intellectual conversation. In addition, once she realised what a story-junkie I was, she fed me a series of teen novels featuring a ‘Spirit-filled’ boy named Danny Orlis whose otherwise dull adventures were enlivened by regular encounters with reprobates who, dazzled by his piety, would fall to their knees and ‘declare for Christ’. The plots were so thin and repetitive that I soon lost interest in them, but Danny’s born-again status, and the power it conferred on him, fascinated me. Even adults hardened by years of sinning (smoking, drinking, dancing – my parents’ pleasures) fell under Danny’s spell. The idea transfixed me, as did the peculiar sexual atmosphere of the books, with their chaste flirtations pepped up by mystic ecstasy.
This was fun; but hints from Anne that I might take any of it personally went unheeded for some time. Then I succumbed. So much for my parents’ materialism. Many pubescent children get religion – even, or maybe especially, children from secular families. Scientific rationalism is too dry a credo for the adolescent experience. I was on the brink of puberty when Anne arrived, in an emotional atmosphere that, despite my parents’ secularism, already carried a certain religious charge. My father was a handsome, clever man whom my mother venerated. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, he was her romantic hero and she made a cult of him, enlisting my younger sister and me as votaries. We were, she sermonised, the luckiest family on earth, to be blessed with such a man. Dad was a lifelong socialist who risked much for his beliefs; he was also a domestic tyrant and a philanderer. His pursuit of women was constant, with little attempt at concealment. So while my mother worshipped at his shrine, he paraded his lovers before her. I tried to see nothing of this, although the evidence was everywhere.
I feared and adored him. He was a rotten father. When I was little, he was irritable and distant; as I got older the way he behaved with me increasingly mirrored his behaviour with my mother. He became over-intimate, with lots of touching and stroking, and fiercely dictatorial, bossing me about and shouting if I didn’t jump to his command. I was scared but also excited and prickly, and huge fights broke out.
Anne and I talked only obliquely about sex. She was pretty, and I teased her about boyfriends. I was beginning to have wicked night-time thoughts, and wanted a partner in crime. Perhaps as an unconscious reaction to this, she once took me to a Mennonite service, in a little clapboard chapel on the wrong side of the tracks, where the minister railed against sinners who handled the ‘beautiful toys’ of life with ‘filthy hands’. I was a nail-biter, and the image made perfect sense to me.
In the end, my conversion to Mennonism was a flimsy affair. I liked the idea of God, who seemed a nicer version of my father, but Christ was too wimpy to attract me. And I was enough my parents’ child to sneer privately at some of Anne’s homilies. I also feared my parents’ scorn, but here my mother surprised me, saying nothing but supplying me with books on ‘world religions’ – Zoroastrianism took my fancy – and sending me off for lessons in Jewish history. Meanwhile I wrote nightly missives to God and tested my sermonising skills on my sister. Things went on like this until one night when I stayed over at a girlfriend’s house and spent the time regaling her with tales of sin and damnation. I didn’t like her parents, who were bohemian snobs, and luridly described the fate that awaited them. The next morning the poor child, hollow-eyed, reported the conversation to her mother. My mother was rung; Anne departed; and my soul was left to struggle on its own. Not entirely: Anne wrote to me for several years, first from the family farm and later from a missionary training institute. I found these letters recently, full of tender queries about my schoolwork, my holiday plans, my Bible-reading. She worried that I was lonely and reminded me that she and God were always glad to hear from me. ‘God wants us to talk to Him a lot. That’s why God made man in the first place, to have someone to love and talk to. But man sinned and spoiled it all, so He had to send Jesus. Wasn’t that a wonderful love?’
I was an unhappy child for whom Anne did what she could: a ‘complicated kindness’, as Toews labels this, vitiated by sanctimony and superstition. When a kindly shopkeeper in East Village looks at Nomi she sees a doomed sinner, a ‘child surrounded by flames, screaming’, and it distresses her. It’s a perverse image, but the compassion, Toews wants us to understand, is real enough – as Anne’s was for me. She definitely had an influence on me. Those cosy chats about the state of my soul triggered an intellectual fascination with religion that has served me well as a historian. But her immediate legacy was more invidious. ‘Under conviction’ is the term used by Anabaptists to describe the awareness of sin that precedes repentance and conversion. Immersed in images of sin and retribution, bewildered by my pubescent emotions and the family atmosphere, I became crushed by conviction. My parents’ sadomasochistic dance, which as a pre-adolescent I had witnessed but not felt, became my own inner violence. My father’s aggression and my mother’s humiliation swelled monstrously inside me: I was brute and victim, Nazi and Jew (my mother’s Judaism finally found its place). I had once been the luckiest girl on earth: now I was the poison flower attacking the root, the blackest of sinners, cut off for ever from God’s mercy.
A Complicated Kindness is haunted by erotic guilt of this sort. In a recent interview Toews described the novel as a story about ‘inexplicable loss . . . people who leave for no good reason and you’ll never know why’. In 2001 Toews published Swing Low, a memoir of her father, Mel, who had killed himself three years earlier after hospitalisation for bipolar disorder. Mel is the original of Nomi’s father, a devout Mennonite of ineffable sweetness whom Toews clearly adored. She tells his story in his voice, including an unflinching account of his dismay at the behaviour of his younger daughter, who at 15 quit the church and began drinking and hanging out with boys, eventually becoming a single mother twice over. Like Nomi, Miriam breaks loose; like her, she is abandoned. ‘Who am I punishing and why?’ Toews has Mel ask himself in Swing Low. The memoir offers a plausible answer in the shape of his demented alcoholic mother, but A Complicated Kindness irresistibly suggests a nearer culpability. ‘I’ve learned from living in this town that stories are what matter,’ Nomi reflects, and her favourite stories are ones of ‘everlasting love’. But it is the story that Nomi can’t tell herself that is making her life hell: a fantasy of erotic destruction, of an explosion of sexual emotion so powerful that it dismembers her family. ‘The stories I have told myself are bleeding into a dream . . . that is coming true,’ but the dream is a nightmare of sexual Armageddon. Whether Toews intends to convey this isn’t clear, but her focus on Nomi’s troubled sexuality, combined with the surrealism and violence of the novel’s imagery, delivers its own message.
A key element in fundamentalism’s appeal, it’s often claimed, is its ability to impose order on psychological chaos. In fact the reverse is true. Fundamentalist dogmas of sin and retribution feed off and intensify emotional perplexity. They are vampire creeds whose lifeblood is the unconscious psyche, in all its Grand Guignol drama and profanity. Fantasies of annihilation, as Adam Phillips argues in Going Sane, are intrinsic to adolescent sexuality. Every child, as she matures and separates from her parents, unconsciously experiences this as an act of violence, a ‘slow murder . . . a protracted killing off’ of parental imagos. Beloved and desired parental figures slide into oblivion. For every adolescent this is profoundly disturbing, but for a child whose parents can’t tolerate it – who bind the child to them, or disappear, or in some other way punish her – the distress can be intolerable. Easy to imagine oneself an engine of destruction; easier perhaps than knowing that even the most loving parent can be a traitor.
In 1965, when I was 15, I received a final letter from Anne. She was about to leave for an overseas mission and wanted to tell me that it was introducing me to Jesus that had set her on the evangelical road. ‘Few things ever made me happier than to hear you say you believe in Christ.’ By then I was as irreligious as my parents could wish, and I laughed at her simplicity.
Two years later, after graduating from high school, I travelled across Canada by train with a group of friends to the World’s Fair in Montreal. We bumped into a former classmate on the train, a Mennonite boy on his way to an African mission. Alex was a handsome, good-natured lad who had been much liked at school – a triumph of personal charm this, given his outspoken piety. One day in tenth grade he had stood up before the class and told us about finding Christ. We had sniggered and admired his bravery. Now on the train he and I talked about religion. He explained his commitment while I pounded away at him with my atheism. Hour after hour we went on, until finally we both collapsed into sleep. The next morning he woke me, his face white and tear-stained, to tell me he was getting off the train and going back to Saskatoon. He had lost his faith; I had shown him the falsity of his beliefs. I was appalled, as were my friends when I told them. We clustered around him, begging him to think again. Eventually he agreed to go on, but hopelessly, as if it didn’t matter what he did. We reached Montreal later that day, and he disappeared into the city.
I had been attracted to Alex, who had shown no sign of noticing, much less reciprocating my feelings. My schoolgirl efforts to engage his attention had received the same friendly response that everyone got from him. Meeting him en route to the mission revived my sense of rejection; no doubt it also reminded me of my earlier abandonment by Anne. So whatever I thought I was doing, as I attacked Alex’s faith, vengeance was my real motive. ‘Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.’ Nomi quotes Gauguin early on in the novel: fortunately, for mere mortals, even the most vicious dreams are dreams only. I saw Alex again a few years after the train debacle. He had gone to the mission and gloried in its work, and was now a trainee Mennonite pastor. He thanked me for coming along at a critical juncture and testing his faith.
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