A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2004, 246 pp.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

As a resident of the ‘East Village’ of Steinbach, and a long-time member of a local Mennonite congregation, I feel that Miriam Toews has done us all a service with her novel, “A Complicated Kindness”. Many in my church community have wrestled repeatedly with finding a way to draw back the polite but deadly curtain of silence that often divides church members and their less-connected, non-churched neighbors. She has helped me identify more clearly what some of the unintended effects the practice of my faith might have on those less at home in my community and congregation.

Yes, I could quibble that ‘East village’ is not exactly like my town, but the resemblance is close enough and the creative differences help to focus the point she is making. The struggles of Toews’ teenage character Nomi and her troubled family could and do play out just as readily in Steinbach as in East Village.

Nomi’s attempts to understand her Mennonite heritage back to it’s European roots, which I find more amusing than accurate, tells what the Mennonite vision might look like through the eyes of a young teenage girl whose circumstances in life leave her out of sync with the Mennonite community. How is Nomi to know the whole story? All she knows is what she has witnessed in her own home and neighborhood.

This is a touching story about one young girl’s search for a place of love, acceptance and security in an imperfect family and community. And that is, of course, always a more complicated process than one might think. Behind the façade of normalcy always lies the real story – a story few care to contemplate. As I read about the quest for kindness that seemed so difficult for Nomi, I reflected on my own experiences, both as a teenager and as a parent of teenagers in later years.

It does not come as a surprise to me that Nomi does not find the kindness she is looking for in a church that focuses on rigid moral control and the threat of eternal punishment. It is clear that she wants to get closer, but in the end is not able to see the church as a life-giving sanctuary that it might have been. In a rather uncomplicated way, Toews urges the church to focus more on redeeming love than on sin, cold rejection and outright condemnation.

One of the most gripping scenes in the book for me was Nomi’s stoning of the church sign that read, YOU THINK ITS HOT HERE…GOD. Having dangled over hell-fire myself throughout much of my teenage experience and still bearing some of the scars of the scorching, I found myself joining in with her stoning rampage. Some of her stones were mine as well. Nomi’s desire for a positive word from the church for those estranged from it resonates deeply within me. When I did eventually find my way into the church, past some similar obstructions faced by Nomi, I discovered a God with open arms – not a God of the big stick I had been led to believe I would find.

Instead of blushing at Nomi’s earthy language, I found myself thankful for the restraint the author uses in putting words into her mouth. Nomi’s language pales in comparison to the language my friends and I used during those traumatic years when the church had us suspended over the flames. In my case, however, that focus was rooted most firmly in the hard-core fundamentalism my family’s Mennonite church had embraced a decade before I was born. Thank you, Miriam, for your simple act of kindness.

You’ve got my attention, Miriam. I hear you! And so do some of my neighbors. Come visit us – soon!