Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness

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A Complicated Kindness Summary

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A Complicated Kindness (2004), a novel by Miriam Toews, 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. East Village is widely suspected to be based on Toews’ own hometown of Steinbach, Manitoba. The novel, Toews’ 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.

The narrator and protagonist Nomi Nickel is in many ways a very ordinary sixteen-year-old: she’s daydreamy, a bit brash, and curious about the world away from home. She lives in East Village, Manitoba, in Canada. Nomi constantly compares her East Village with the rather more famous neighborhood of the same name in New York City: the haunt of many celebrities, such as Lou Reed, that she would like to pal around with. Her life in her own Mennonite community could not be more different than the high life in New York. Her only companion, at the start of the novel, is her dutiful, but rather dour father, Ray Nickel, with whom she lives. Ray is a good, church-abiding member of the town, but Nomi questions her faith’s teachings. Over them both looms Hans Rosenfeldt, her mother’s older brother, known colloquially as “The Mouth.” A preacher, he is quite evangelical and wields considerable influence in the town.

Nomi’s mother is nowhere to be found. Eventually, it comes out that both her mother and old sister have skipped town in the past few years – only seven weeks apart, in fact. Her sister, Natasha “Tash” Nickel, left first, with her boyfriend in tow. They drove off in his Ecoline van, having been unsatisfied with life in East Village for a long time. As a “pious little Menno kid” at the time, Nomi struggled to accept that her sister had traded her soul away by leaving the community and the faith. Not long after Tash’s escape, Nomi’s mother, Gertrude “Trudie” Nickel, also abandoned the town. Her leaving was more abrupt and harder to explain. Although Nomi, early in the novel, is not exactly the most pious girl in town, she does have faith, fervently hoping that through faith, her family will be made whole again one day. In the meantime, she feels she must stay with her father.

Nevertheless, she is not content in East Village. She fears that after graduation, she will be condemned to working in the slaughterhouse – a “good” and hardworking East Village woman with no chance of escape. Her senior year of high school is difficult, and she develops a penchant for drugs. Her boyfriend, Travis, drops of out high school altogether, choosing to go to work for the family business instead. She visits her friend Lydia in the hospital, ending up in a fight with the hospital staff. Finally, she learns the truth about her mother’s strange disappearance – she had had an affair with high school teacher Mr. Quiring, and he blackmailed her into silence. Frustrated with his threats to bring the wrath of the church against her, and unhappy in her marriage, she left because she felt she had no other choice. Nomi seeks revenge of a kind against Mr. Quiring by writing a symbolic story with an ending he disapproves of.

Towards the end of the novel, after failing to attend church for an extended period of time, and setting Travis’s truck on fire in anger, the Mennonite church takes the step of excommunicating Nomi. This renders her essentially friendless in her own town. She understands that she will never fit in in East Village, and her family will never return to what it once was. Nomi’s long-suffering father then takes the extreme step of leaving town, himself – leaving Nomi in possession of the house, car, and everything else of worth. By doing so, he leaves her with the means to become the last Nickel to leave town, finally at liberty to go wherever she wants and to live on her own terms.

A Complicated Kindness is one in a long tradition of coming-of-age stories set in desolate small towns; it breaks no new ground there; however, Toews’ insider knowledge of Mennonite culture and her honest evocation of rebellious adolescence give the novel an immediacy that elevates it to one of the most successful recent entries into its generic lineage.