Monday, November 27, 2006

Reading "A Complicated Kindness." Upset. Must Keep Reading.

I've had this novel on my shelf for a year. My friend gave it to me because I'm Mennonite. The author, Miriam Toews, is also Mennonite. That is where the similarities end.

I'm completely torn apart by "A Complicated Kindness."

It is so, so, so beautifully written it breaks my heart. She has achieved the voice of a bored, betrayed, downtrodden teenage girl, and captured it perfectly.

But it is so damn offensive to me, the way she describes my chosen faith. I am telling you, I don't even recognize anything Mennonite in there. I don't understand her denomination; it doesn't even vaguely resemble mine.

Worse yet, reading this has caused me to do something I vowed twenty years ago to never do. I am worried about what other people will think!

If you were to read this novel, with no knowledge or familiarity of the Mennonite faith, or of the Anabaptist movement in general, you would come away believing that we are all a bunch of joyless, grim, rule-bound, judgemental, miserable prudes.

I was born into a Mennonite family, and raised going to church every Sunday. Sure I rebelled quite a bit in my teens- like a large majority of kids- but I missed the connection of spirituality and that church family, the support and guidance, and I missed the four part harmony, and I came back. Even after I moved way down the highway I kept coming back. I had dropped out of baptism class twice and at the age of 26, married over five years and a mother twice, I was baptized. I was born and raised Mennonite and I thought real good and hard about it before I chose it for the rest of my life.

Now I ask you, especially if you've been dropping by here and reading for awhile. Do I seem to you to be joyless, grim, rule-bound, judgemental, and miserable?

I find myself feeling so angry at the author for misrepresenting my people!!

But then I realize that I am making some very huge mistakes here.

-I know that Miriam Toews is from Steinbach, Manitoba. I've never been there. But I do know that Manitoba is where many Russian Mennonites settled over a 50 year period from the late 1800s to the 1940s. I'm thinking that there are cultural differences between Russian Mennonites and Swiss/ German Mennonites, which is my background.

-She's not the first author I've read from her background who portrays this culture as very harsh and strict.

-If I were to ask ten Mennonites to describe how their faith makes them feel, I'd get ten different answers.

-I am being totally unfair. I've only gotten to chapter ten. I told my mom last week that I'm all torn up over this book. I was only on chapter two back then. I told her that it doesn't look anything like the Mennonite that I'm familiar with. She is a very wise woman. She told me I should keep reading. Things sometimes change at the end of the book.

-What am I getting so worked up over? It's a novel!!!

Or is it??

This is where it gets really tangled for me. Readers expect biographies from their authors. I often worry that anything I write will get dredged by those who know me, looking for clues, wanting to know who I stole the little bits of life from to come up with this so-called fiction! It's the old "write what you know" thing. Admit it: you've done it. You've wondered if the words came out of the writer's experience.

I have so many questions.

Did she make it all up because she's bitter about her upbringing, and wanted to take literary revenge?

Doesn't she know that Menno Simons did not invent the faith that was eventually named after him? Or is it the character that doesn't know?

I've never known of anybody who was shunned- is this an old order thing? Does anybody actually still do this? For real?

Did she quit going to church when she left Steinbach?

Was it really so bad??

Are prairie bound Russian Mennonites really more miserable than the rolling-hills Ontario Mennonites?

(We're not just in Manitoba and Ontario either. We're nationwide. We're in little pockets all over North America. And you can't tell by looking at us all the time. There are more Mennonites in Africa that there are in Europe. Surprize.)

If this town is run by the church, how come the characters don't spend much time there?

And what's with the one totalitarian pastor who runs the church and therefore the entire town with an iron fist? That's so completely un-Mennonite. We choose our pastors. We can unchoose them. Our congregation is full of committees and groups and discussions and outreaches and on top of our bulletin, under the pastor's name and the names of the elders (who are men and women of all ages) there is a line stating, "Ministers: each member." I've never heard of a church with a dictator for a pastor. And there are a LOT of Mennonite churches where I'm from. Is this different in other parts of the world?

Is the town in "A Complicated Kindness" full of Mennonites like me who look (somewhat) like everybody else, or do they wear dark clothes and drive black cars with no chrome? I can't tell. The main character watches TV. She has a boyfriend with a pickup truck and they go hang around and smoke and swear and listen to Led Zeppelin.

Geez...is this book about ME?

So many questions.

And of course, as I read, this dangerous idea that the novel and its writer are so inextricably connected keeps coming up for me, fearing that same thing happening to me someday!

I'll tell you, I have a lot of respect for Miriam Toews. She's a writer with a gift for observation, emotion, and voice. And how cute is this woman? Seriously. Please notice that she's smiling with her teeth showing in this photo. You know that's a big thing for me. Come on, all of you serious and dignified authors! Smile! Let's see some teeth!

I have to keep reading this novel. I have to know what happens. She's got me hooked. I've become totally enamoured with this 16 year old character who speaks with all the irony and sarcasm that teenagers work to perfect. I understand her, because nobody else understands her. I know that she wants to express herself and nobody allows her to. I don't relate to this character because I was a Mennonite teenager. I relate to her because I was a teenager.

I have another reason for reading and it's tricky. It's that awkward combination of jealousy and admiration. About a year and a half ago, I started writing a novel about a Mennonite teenager. "A Complicated Kindness" came out in 2004. I'd been avoiding it. I can't put it down, because it angers me, and it intrigues me, and I hope that some day my novel will turn out half as good as this one.


Life, or Something Like It said...

I know very little about Mennonites, but I do know someone from an old order congregation.She WAS shunned, she did wear dark clothes, had no electricty, and her upbringing was so different than yours. She didn't go past grade 8 because it was thought that there was no need of it for a girl. This is very common, apparently.
I think that there is such a diiference between the old order and your church/congregation. it is like 2 different religions in so many ways.
You are absolutely one of the happiest, non-judgemental people that I know. Bound by rules? No way. I love that about you, and your mom.
I am very intrigued now. I think that I would like to read this book - with an open mind.
I don't think that your book will come out half as good as this one. I know that it will be far and away the best. No doubt about it.

Heidi the Hick said...

You, my love, are far and away, my best cheerleader.

I'll loan it to you. I don't loan my books easily because I'm like a dragon librarian hoarding my treasures but I'll let you read this one. OK!

Balloon Pirate said...

I'm assuming this novel is written in the first person? Could it be that some of the joylessness that is described comes from the main character's interpretation of things, which may not necessarily be the way they actually are?

Also, are you writing for the approval of those comparatively few people who know you, or are you writing because you think you have something to say to the world in general? If it's the latter, then what do you care if a few people make inferences?


Heidi the Hick said...

Pirate- EXACTLY.

Reading this novel is actually a very good exercise for me because it's forcing me to examine the relationship between the writer and the book, and decide for myself what it means.

The one I'm working on now is the most important one I've done (it's the fourth one). Yes, I am writing it because I think I have something to say. It's got some content that makes me shudder. People will make inferences. It's inevitable. I have to go back to what I decided when I was a kid: I don't care what people think! I can't control what people think!

I just have this story that I have to tell. I assume that's why all writers do what they do!

And thank you for reading!

N I F T Y said...

It sounds like one of those books you go back and read again and again, even when there are years between each reading. I have a book like that, it's called Stargirl. I'll write about.

I'm so waiting for your book, Heidi. You are going to send me a copy, right?

Heidi the Hick said...

Stargirl is on my list of must-read!

As for mine, I have to finish it first...

dilling said...

heidi~it's a book that sparks something in you..and that is always a good thing. maybe a little research into the differences of mennonite cultures is called for...it may be amazing what you find out?!?

Redneck Nerdboy! said...

No, I don't try to put folks in a category by their religion. I usually try to focus on what their heart is like first.

Miriam probably had a very, very harsh upbringing and sounds like she isn't very happy at all. And that's a shame... book or no book.

Heidi the Hick said...

Y'know what Dilling? I know the basic theology of it but I really only have a familiarity with my own branch of this faith. There are all these cultural things that you can't really know until you look into it.

I have more reading to do!!!

Nerdneck redboy!! It's true, we really do have to get to know people for who they really are! I've been reading up on Miriam Toews and she's pretty interesting. I think her upbringing was harsh...but she did end up moving back to the province she grew up in. Interesting.

RWB said...

For years I lived just outside of Grabill Indiana, where there is a huge Amish and Mennonite population…I will admit the older generation of Amish were a stern bunch, rarely sharing a smile but to describe them and especially the Mennonite as “Joyless, grim or miserable prudes” seems far from accurate…and the younger generations were always fun to party with, albeit a little shy at first but they quickly became regulars at our back woods bonfires.

I always held great respect for those kids! They were scrutinized by the surrounding communities but held to the belief that had been instilled in them (with a few minor discrepancies)…I even dated a Mennonite girl for a brief time.

“a complicated kindness” is now at the top of my must read list!

Heidi the Hick said...

rwb- thanks for sharing that!

You should read "A Complicated Kindness." It's just very, very good. It's boiling my blood and firing my imagination!

The Adult in Question said...

I think your writing will surpass this author's whose name I suddenly can't remember.

Heidi the Hick said...

Oh man. Can I quote you on that? Like, five years from now?

DINK PINK said...


Heidi the Hick said...

Actually Mar, with you in Kansas, I'd love to know what you'd think of this book! I do think you should read it!

Notsocranky Yankee said...

I don't know much about Mennonites but I find it believable that this author could have had a different experience than you.

Have you finished the book yet?

ldbug said...

I know nothing about your faith, but I do know that there are a half million books out there about suffering under one religion or another. Every faith has that, so don't worry. It's so great that you were able to arrive upon your faith in your own way. I think it means a lot:-) Maybe this author didn't feel she had a choice? Maybe she has some resentments from the past from how she was raised. I'm sure she'd feel the same if raised Catholic, not because of the religion, but because of her family. Anyway, maybe it's a good thing that the author has involved you so much! I love books that make me feel, and think!

Heidi the Hick said...

update- chapter twelve now-

This book just keeps getting better.

Yes it's clear that the author didn't have the same good experiences in her youth that I did BUT it's becoming clear that the character is sorting through all of this.

I've also done some research and it turns out the author did a bit of world travelling and ended up back in Manitoba, not far from where she started out. Interesting...

cara winsor hehir said...

read 'tempting faith d'nappoli'. it's is based in swo and is about teenage angst in a catholic upbringing. very good. it will help in your research!

Vicki said...

I know a tiny bit about Mennonites, what I do know I have fallen in love with. Kind, gentle people. Simple way of life I secretly long for. can you recommend a book that would generate a true picture of your religion and lifestyle?

Heidi the Hick said...

cara and vicki- thank you both- I'll get looking for that book to read and I'll look for one that is more accurate, or maybe I'll just have to write it my darn self.

Actually...Amish Adventure by Barbara Smucker, although I read it when I was a kid and don't remember details. I thought it was pretty good back then...