41 pages • 1 hour readMiriam Toews
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Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness (2004) is about Nomi Nickel, an adolescent living in the religious Mennonite town of East Village whose coming of age takes place against the backdrop of her family’s unraveling. Toews, who grew up in the Mennonite community of Steinbach, Manitoba, is the author of several novels set in Mennonite communities, many of which are critical of aspects of the faith. This novel, Toews’s third, has garnered considerable acclaim and many awards, including the CBA Libris Fiction Award, the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction, and CBC’s Canada Reads. This study guide uses the Counterpoint Press paperback edition.
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The novel takes place in the late 1960s and traces the final days before the high school graduation of Nomi Nickel, a 16-year-old from East Village, Manitoba. Nomi lives with her devout, stoic father Ray, to whom she is fiercely loyal after the sudden departures of her sister Tash and her mother Trudie several weeks apart when Nomi was 13. She expects that after graduation, she will go to work at the chicken processing plant, a future that is a far cry from the life she wants: living in the other East Village in New York City and hanging out with Lou Reed.
The departure of Tash and Trudie was a shattering event for the family, though, and it has left Ray and Nomi reeling, even three years later. It is revealed throughout the novel that Tash left with her boyfriend, Ian, after admitting that she was an atheist who couldn’t bear to stay in the deeply conservative town. Trudie’s departure was more unexpected: she was being blackmailed by the English teacher Mr. Quiring, whom she had and ended an affair with; this led to her excommunication from the church by her brother, Hans “The Mouth” Rosenfeldt, a domineering man who lords his power over the town. Rather than face life as an outcast and force Ray to choose between love and his faith, Trudie left. These events have shaken Nomi’s faith, and she spends the course of the novel adrift in the town, partying with her boyfriend Travis and contemplating losing her virginity to him. Ray, meanwhile, has retreated from the community and deeper into his faith.
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Nomi spends her days wandering the town, often skipping school and battling with Mr. Quiring, the English teacher whom she knows had an affair with her mother and then was involved in her disappearance. She also visits with her friend Lydia in the hospital; Lydia has a mysterious illness that her family and nurses often disbelieve. During this time, Nomi relates stories of Tash and Trudie, using them to puzzle out what happened with the family and what she should do. Ray, meanwhile, has begun driving around all night and selling off the family’s furniture. He is concerned with Nomi’s behavior and presses her to make sure she graduates.
Nomi spirals into a crisis point, using drugs, battling with authority figures at school, shaving her head, and eventually having sex with Travis. Afterward, she spies his truck outside a hotel, a clear indicator that he’s sleeping with a coworker. She lights his truck on fire, has sex with her drug dealer, and then stays the night in a field where Ray finds her and comforts her.
The next morning, The Mouth arrives and tells the two that Nomi is being excommunicated from the community. Nomi sees the bitter irony of this. Knowing that he cannot bear further heartache in choosing between his faith and his family, Ray leaves town, which he has been planning all along as a way to free Nomi of the obligation of staying in East Village. He leaves her a note expressing his hope for her, both to make a life in New York and find her way to some kind of faith. At the close of the novel, she is thinking about her next steps, knowing that her father has set her free from the obligation of keeping what’s left of her family together.
By Miriam Toews