Fumbling Towards Empathy
On my first day of work at Indian Echo Caverns in the Pennsylvania countryside, I was trained by a Mennonite tour guide in a tight bun and Easy Spirits. She was my age, 17, but I guessed she was much older. Is she allowed to work here? I thought, then scolded myself for it. When I got to know her, she acted like any one of us, with fewer swear words and comfortable shoes. I had heard stories about Mennonite kids selling crack, and at once I began to believe it. They were as angst-ridden as the rest of us, which earned them respect in my narcissistic adolescent brain.
I tried to read Miriam Toews’ heartfelt A Complicated Kindness with that teenage epiphany in mind. Nomi Nickel is a Mennonite girl growing up in a small god-fearing Canadian community called East Village. Ironically, Nomi’s dream is to live in New York’s East Village, the antithesis of her closed world. She grapples with a dysfunctional family, sex, drugs, and school; all against the backdrop of the unforgiving religious community she cannot escape.
We are introduced to Nomi’s extraordinary life through ordinary means—casual descriptions of daily and family life that reverberate powerfully thanks to Toews’ perfectly calibrated tone. Set against the frigid Canadian countryside, the town seems chillier thanks to descriptions of the local business—a chicken farm where the slaughtered birds hang like a nightmare over the young people destined to inherit a job at the chopping block.
The narrative reads like Nomi’s diary. At first, the excessive use of the word “and”, as well as mind-boggling non sequiturs, can be grating. Similarly, the lack of quotation marks throughout gets confusing. It does not take long, however, to begin understanding how effectively Toews writes a teenager. The tone is pitch perfect without becoming cliched. Set deep inside Nomi’s brain, the story flows through her mind’s distractions, buoyed by the sweet self-absorption of adolescent life. Through carefully chosen observations that sometimes might seem trite, unusually complex characters emerge.
Nomi’s immediate family includes a rebellious older sister, Tash; a conflicted mother, Trudie; and her quiet father, Ray. The circle broadens to include her pious and locally powerful uncle Hans “The Mouth,” and an aggravating boyfriend named Travis. Tash and Trudie flit like phantasms throughout, and we begin to understand that their existence in the book derives from Nomi’s memories. Ray, on the other hand, appears fully dimensional and concrete. He is the rock of the family, part of its past, present, and uncertain future.
From a left-wing, non-religious, American viewpoint, beginning this book was like engaging in conversation with a Born Again pro-lifer at a clinic picket line. I expected some confusion, or frustrated fury. The great genius of Toews’ meticulously designed narrative, however, is that all expectations are turned on their heads. Nomi’s inner monologue manages to capture a loyalty to her upbringing, as well as the curiosity that promotes thinking “out of the box”; or in this case, out of the sloped roof of a whitewashed fundamentalist church. Nomi embodies the balance each of us grapples to achieve: understanding the faults of our upbringings on an intellectual level, and finding comfort in them on an emotional level. This simultaneous repulsion and attraction is what makes a small Canadian Mennonite girl universal to any reader. Nearly anybody of any political or religious background will feel personally challenged and deeply sympathetic to any number of characters in the book.
More than halfway through the fascinating, mundane daily life of Nomi Nickel, I began to understand that all the sameness in the scenery was building to some dramatic end. The mother, crazed in her repression, spends one memorable scene ranting and screaming at her brother “The Mouth”—a strictly devout Mennonite leader who had rebelled as a teenager, tried to make his way in the world, and failed. Tash’s announcement that she was an “atheist” sends shockwaves through Nomi’s cerebral cortex. The father, Ray, stands out as the strongest and most tortured of all. Toews’ subtle focus on Ray’s dimensions is what gives the end emotional power.
Families are sometimes so strong that they turn against themselves, breaking apart instead of holding together. That lesson reverberates among deeply loyal communities the world over. A Complicated Kindness will remind you of just that: the complex and innocent humanity inside each of us that is too often shaped by human tragedy.