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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

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...

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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

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559

First published: Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2004

Genre(s): Novel

Subgenre(s): Humor; literary fiction

Core issue(s): Coming of age or teen life; doubt; freedom and free will; love; Mennonites; obedience and disobedience

Principal characters

Nomi Nickel, a teenager living in a Mennonite community

Tash Nickel, Nomi’s older sister

Trudie Nickel, Nomi’s mother

Ray Nickel, Nomi’s father

Hans Rosenfeldt, Nomi’s uncle and a Mennonite minister

Travis, Nomi’s boyfriend

Lydia, Nomi’s best friend

Mr. Quiring, Nomi’s English teacher

Overview

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 his own brief experience with modern society during a time of youthful experimentation, is trying to shield the community from the outside world and is determined to preserve the traditional Mennonite lifestyle. Hans is a lonely, defeated man, and as a minister, he has the power to punish and exclude those who deviate from the Mennonite way. He is partly responsible for driving off his niece Tash and his sister Trudie. Hans formed an alliance with another authority figure in East Village, Nomi’s English teacher, Mr. Quiring, and the pair decided to subject Trudie to a shunning.

The reader learns that Nomi’s entire narrative is the fulfillment of a writing assignment for Mr. Quiring’s class. By the end of this writing assignment, Nomi has disclosed to the reader and to Mr. Quiring that she knows the dark reality that has been lurking underneath her story the entire time: When her mother, Trudie, attempted to break off her secret love affair with Mr. Quiring, he denounced her to Hans, compounding his betrayal with lies about Trudie’s sexual conduct with other men of the town. The hypocrisy of Mr. Quiring, his sanctimonious retaliation against Trudie, and the conspiratorial patriarchal power he and Hans assume over the women of the Nickel family are at the heart of Nomi’s quarrel with her Mennonite community.

Nomi does not leave her community, but like Tash and Trudie, she struggles against all things Mennonite. She makes a major departure from the ways of her community when she acquires birth control pills in preparation for her first sexual experience with her boyfriend Travis; his loss of interest in her afterward is an abandonment that is particularly shattering in the wake of the departure of her sister and mother. Nomi engages in a kind of prostitution when she finds herself trading sex for drugs with the local drug dealer. More feelings of abandonment beset Nomi when her best friend Lydia, who is suffering from an illness that is somehow related to her upbringing in East Village, leaves for an extended stay in a distant hospital. As Tash, Trudie, Travis, and Lydia disappear from her life, all that remains is her father, Ray, a dedicated grade-school teacher and devout Mennonite. When Nomi’s outrageous behavior and provocative manner of dress finally lead to an official shunning, Ray leaves town to avoid the pain of having to coldly ignore his most beloved and most dutiful daughter.

However, unlike the rest of her family, Nomi does not go away. Although Nomi packs her bags and gets in her car, she does not leave the community; she is instead filled with good memories of her childhood in East Village. Appropriating the Mennonite expectation of a family reunion in Heaven, Nomi hopes her family will one day reunite on earth. There is also a tacit hope that somehow her Mennonite community will find a way to look on the Nickel family with sympathy and understanding.

Christian Themes

One of the major themes in A Complicated Kindness is the practice of the ban, or shunning, common to Mennonite and related Christian communities. This form of excommunication is at the heart of what led to the breakup of the Nickel family. Originally a way to avoid bloodshed, the pacifist tactic of shunning is, as Miriam Toews’s title suggests, “a complicated kindness.” By excluding those who come into conflict with the community, shunning can destroy the relationship between neighbors and, as in the case of the Nickel family, cruelly divide family members.

Author Miriam Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite community, also questions the Mennonite religion as practiced by intolerant leaders such as Hans, whose conservative policies had intensified in response to the loosening and liberalizing of the larger culture in the 1970’s. Hans presides zealously over a central tenet of the Mennonites, which is to remain outside the mainstream of modern life and practice self-denial and austerity in the expectation of eventual heavenly reward. The dangers of a consequent rigidity and repression, Toews suggests, may ultimately damage the integrity of the Mennonite way of life. Although the pressures of feminism and modern individualism, with its emphasis on personal choice and gratification over social obligations and family responsibilities, certainly had a role in fragmenting Nomi’s family, Toews suggests that the unforgiving and controlling Mennonite community may also be responsible for the disintegration of the Nickel family and its estrangement from its community.

Even as the Mennonite community is subjected to Toews’s wit and irreverence, she also affirms the aspect of the Mennonite faith that emphasizes the love of family and community. The reprobative Hans contrasts with Nomi’s father, Ray, whose gentle, loving nature and devotion to his family stand for all that Nomi values about her little Mennonite town. Nomi demonstrates a similar empathic core, caring for both members of the older generation such as her lonely father and the little children in neighboring families. Rejecting the Mennonite suspicion of the worldly, Nomi counsels adherence to that side of the Mennonite faith that affirms the Christian law of love for all things, including her time on earth.

Nomi’s crisis has as much to do with the evaporation of her family and the loss of her community as with the nature of the Mennonite religion; these are losses for which the liberal benefits of modernity cannot compensate. In this regard, the novel is an open dialogue with her community, in which the hope is for changes that will allow a bridge to be built between herself and her Mennonite roots.

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.
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