Country Focus: Canada
A Complicated Kindness
By Miriam Toews
Originally published in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2004. My edition: Vintage Canada, 2005.
Time period: late 1970s
Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel smokes Sweet Caps and dope, listens to Lou Reed, asks her doctor for The Pill and dreams of a life in New York City. She’s a typical late 1970s Canadian teenager, except for the fact that she’s part of a Mennonite community. Mennonites, similar to but less conservative than the more famous Amish, abstain from earthly pleasures like dancing, music, movies and visiting the city in order to earn the eternal pleasures that await in heaven. “Mennos” are, according to Nomi, “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” Life might be less stressful if only her uncle wasn’t the leader of the community. He wields the power to excommunicate or “shun” non-conformists. No Mennonite, not even family members, may speak to that excommunicated person or sit at the same table with them.
Nomi’s family has buckled under this strict moral code. Her rebellious older sister Tash took off with her boyfriend three years ago. Her mother left seven weeks later. Their departures leave Nomi’s father, a kind but befuddled schoolteacher, bereft. Rudderless, Nomi spends her time skipping class, hanging out with her boyfriend Travis, and visiting her best friend Lydia in the hospital.
The reader learns early on that Tash took off because she had no intention of filing down her edges in order to squeeze into the religiously constrictive hole the community had prepared for her. Nomi’s mother also chafes under the many taboos, but the question of why she disappeared is left open until late in the novel. The main question is: what will happen to Nomi? Will she wind up working at Happy Family Farms, the nearby chicken evisceration plant or alongside Travis in the “artificial village,” a Mennonite version of Colonial Williamsburg that attracts tourists looking for the simple life?
Nomi claims to be doomed, but the reader knows that Nomi is too smart and full of NYC fever to resign herself to either one of these fates. I couldn’t help but cast Ellen Page à la Juno (in the 2007 movie by the same name) as Nomi Nickel – Nomi’s narration is marinated in the same flavor of sarcasm as Page’s lines and delivery. Nomi had me at the first chapter. I couldn’t wait to read what she was going to say next.
Author Miriam Toews based the setting for A Complicated Kindness on her own hometown of Steinbach, Manitoba. Founded by Mennonites, it too hosts an “artificial village” – the Mennonite Heritage Village – that attracts tourists who are beguiled by the mythical simplicity of country living and conservative values. The irony is that in the modern secular world, living under strict religious codes is anything but simple.
We were supposed to pay a dollar to get into the dump but the guy there knew Ray and waved him right in. VIP? I asked him. Well, he said, he hadn’t wanted to brag but he never has to pay when he goes into the dump. Then he told me that he sometimes cleans up at the dump late at night after the guy at the gate goes home and the dump people liked that.
You clean up the dump? I asked him. At night?
No, no, he said.
Yeah you do, I said.
Well, yes, he said, I do.
That’s cool though, I said thinking Jesus, let’s not be the kind of family that tidies up the dump at night. The dump is the dump, though Dad, I said. The central idea at work in a dump is that it’s not a clean place.
Ray said: Well, yes, but I organize the garbage in a way I feel makes sense. I patted him on the arm. Not so much to encourage him, but because I needed to feel something solid right then.