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...
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