Study Guide

A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Teenager Nomi Nickel’s loose narrative consists of anecdotes and observations about her Mennonite community that are often comic but that also reveal a young woman who is struggling to cope with the sudden defiant departure from the community three years earlier of her sister Tash and her mother, Trudie. Like her mother and sister, Nomi finds life in her traditional Mennonite town increasingly oppressive.

Although Nomi yearns to live in New York City’s bohemian East Village, she lives in the Canadian town of East Village, which is populated by a conservative branch of the Mennonite faith. The town’s economy is based on a chicken processing plant, where most of its young people will end up working, and a museum village that reflects the community’s history of avoidance of the worldly and the modern. The reality of working in this living history museum, however, suggests the difficulty of keeping modernity at bay. Nomi works playing the part of a traditional Mennonite villager. However, an incident in which she inadvertently sets fire to her bonnet with one of her ever-present cigarettes demonstrates the gap between what Nomi’s life as a Mennonite is supposed to be and what it really is. Similarly, even though there are rules prohibiting dancing, drinking, swimming, wearing jewelry, or staying up past nine o’clock, Nomi and her friends ignore them. They are up on the latest music, and they purchase drugs from dealers who have set up business in a trailer on the edge of town.

The most prominent among the town rebels was Nomi’s adored older sister, Tash, who was the first to leave. After Tash left, her mother, Trudie, was furious that her brother, church minister Hans Rosenfeldt, may have led his niece Nomi to believe that Tash’s departure for the outside world with her boyfriend has consigned her to eternal damnation. Trudie quarreled with Hans, accusing him of knowing nothing about the love that is ideally the basis of the Mennonite faith and instead establishing a punitive regime calculated to frighten and control his community. Hans,...

(The entire section is 847 words.)

A Complicated Kindness Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Birns, Margaret Boe. Review of A Complicated Kindness. Canadian Ethnic Studies 37, no. 1 (October, 2005): 163-165. Review that emphasizes the effect of the social changes of 1970’s on the Mennonite community.

Herbert, Marily. Bookclub-in-a-Box Discusses the Novel “A Complicated Kindness” by Miriam Toews. Toronto: Bookclub-in-a-Box, 2006. Reader’s guide with notes on the Mennonite religion, facts about the author, and an examination of the character of Nomi.

Shillinger, Liesl. “A Prairie Home Companion.” Review of A Complicated Kindness. The New York Times Book Review, January 23, 2005, p 18. Notes the mix of irreverence and compassion in Nomi’s narrative; emphasizes the sympathy Nomi expresses for her community even as she struggles against it.

Toews, Miriam. Swing Low: A Life. New York: Arcade, 2001. Sympathetic examination of Toews’s Mennonite father, whose strict Mennonite upbringing may have made it difficult for him to treat the bipolar disorder that led to his suicide.

Williams, Zoe. “The One Who Got Away.” The Guardian, July 24, 2004, p. 30. Includes material from an in-depth interview with Toews. Explores the novel in terms of Toews’s own background as a Mennonite and her more liberal current life in Winnipeg.