A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

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A Complicated Kindness Summary

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews is narrated by Naomi “Nomi” Nickel, a sixteen-year-old girl living alone with her father in East Village, a Mennonite community. Told largely through flashbacks, the novel reads almost like diary entries, capturing the wry, sarcastic tone of a teenager at odds with her strict religious upbringing. She says, “We are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager.”

The reader discovers that Nomi’s sister, Tash, left the community with a boyfriend three years ago, and her mother, Trudie, also abandoned the family shortly after. Nomi would like to follow them but now feels trapped by her loyalty to her father to remain with him in East Village. At home, her father, Ray ,is still stunned from the absence of his wife and daughter and spends much of his time sitting on a chair in front of the house watching the highway.

The town holds little by way of future options for Nomi, as its only industry is a chicken plant. In Nomi’s senior year of high school, she spends much of her time with her friend Lydia, who she likes because she “did the most unbelievably nerdy things without knowing it or if she did know it she didn't care at all.” She rides around in a truck, smoking marijuana and listening to Lou Reed with her friends and boyfriend, Travis, who is also something of a black sheep. Travis, however, has to quit school to work for his dad.

Later, Nomi discovers that her teacher Mr. Quiring had an affair with her mother. Mr. Quring then threatened her with being shunned by the community if she were to reveal their secret.

Toward the end of the novel, Nomi faces being shunned because she is excommunicated for not attending church services and setting fire to her boyfriend’s truck. Her father’s response is to leave town. This complicated kindness grants his daughter the freedom she needs to do the same.

Summary

(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, disturbed by...

(The entire section is 1,370 words.)