From the award-winning author of A Complicated Kindness comes a heart-wrenching yet wryly funny story about setting out on the road to self-discovery, and finding the strength to survive in the face of immeasurable loss.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, surrounded by desert and both physically and culturally isolated from the surrounding towns and cities. It’s been six years since her family up and left Canada to escape the prying eyes of the government and preserve their religious freedom, but Irma still misses the minor freedoms she had in their small town. She even misses the cold. This new life has not been an easy one, and Irma finds herself deserted by her husband of one year, who has left to pursue a life of drug-running, instead of working her family’s farm. The most devastating blow for Irma is that he didn’t take her with him, take her away, so now she’s left to live under her father’s domineering rule alone.
Things change for Irma when a film crew moves into the empty house next door. They’ve come to make a movie about the Mennonite community, and have made a deal with Irma’s father to stay on their land. The director enlists Irma to work for them as a translator, as she can speak not only Spanish and English but Plattdeutsch, or Low German, the language of her people. At first bemused by the ragged and absurd crewmembers, Irma comes to embrace the passion and creative freedom of their world – but in doing so brings on the wrath of her father, who is determined to keep her from it at all costs. When Irma’s thirteen-year-old sister Aggie begins to come by and spend time with the crew, their father is sent over the edge with rage, and Irma is forced to make a hard decision to save not only herself, but her younger sister, and to break the dark chain of violence holding her family.
The girls flee to the city, not knowing where they’ll find food or shelter, let alone build a life, but knowing for the first time that they are free to make that choice. And even as they begin to understand the truth of the tragedy that has their family in its grip, Irma and Aggie use their love as a source of strength to help each other move on from their past lives and work toward a future that can truly become anything they want it to be.
Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
No, I really am, I said.
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
Questions about what? I asked him.
Anything, he said.
But about what? I said.
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
Some people are staring at us, he said.
No they’re not, I said.
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
I think so, I said.
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
So, he said. Why would you want to?
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
I don’t know, I said.
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
I’d rather not.
I was just saying stuff.
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.
From the Hardcover edition.
Miriam Toews (pronounced tâves) was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She left Steinbach at eighteen, living in Montreal and London and touring Europe before coming back to Manitoba, where she earned a B.A. in film studies at the University of Manitoba. Later she packed up with her children and partner and moved to Halifax to attend the University of King’s College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Upon returning to Winnipeg with her family in 1991, she freelanced at the CBC, making radio documentaries. When her youngest daughter started nursery school, Toews decided it was time to try writing a novel.
Miriam Toews’s first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, was published in 1996; it was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and won the John Hirsch Award. Published two years later, her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Toews’s next book, Swing Low: A Life, told the story of her father, who committed suicide in 1998 after a lifelong battle with manic depression. Toews then returned to fiction, with the bestselling novel A Complicated Kindness, published in 2004, which was a Giller Prize finalist and won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her next novel, The Flying Troutmans (2008), won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Toews has also written for the CBC, This American Life (on National Public Radio), Saturday Night, Geist, Canadian Geographic, Open Letters and the New York Times Magazine, and she has won the National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Humour.
It was A Complicated Kindness, set in the small Mennonite town of East Village, Manitoba, that solidified Miriam Toews’s place among Canada’s most respected and best-loved authors. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel and the battles she faces as a teenager in a religious vacuum of a town, not to mention within her fractured family, as she deals with the loss of both her mother and her sister. The novel was widely praised for its dark humour and for how Toews delves into the frustration and despair that can flourish when you live within a fundamentalist religion; the Globe and Mail called it “a black humour grenade, dealing a devastating explosion of gut-busting laughs alongside heart-wrenching sorrow.”
Miriam Toews didn’t expect to set another book within the Mennonite world she grew up in, but that changed after she was asked by director Carlos Reygadas to appear in his 2007 film Stellet Licht (Silent Light). The film was about a Mennonite family in Mexico, and Reygadas, who prefers to use non-actors, contacted Toews out of the blue to ask her to play a wife who is betrayed by her husband. Toews reluctantly agreed to take on the role, but only after the director pointed out that doing so would give her something interesting to write about. The movie was filmed on location in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, over the course of eight weeks, and the cast and crew lived on site in two abandoned farmhouses. The experience, Toews has said, was at once familiar, but so unfamiliar as well. “I could far more easily relate to the filmmakers than I could to these old-school Mennonites, although they all looked like me, and our names are all similar,” she commented in one interview. “There were so many layers of strangeness to it. I certainly knew it was a rich experience. I knew that I was experiencing something completely unique and intense.”
Three years later, Toews would use her memories of that time as source material as she embarked on her fifth novel, Irma Voth. Set in a Mennonite colony in Chihuahua, Mexico, the novel tells the story of nineteen-year-old Irma Voth, who is struggling against the fundamentalist world of her upbringing – and particularly her father – when a film crew moves in next door, intent on making a movie about the community. For Toews, this novel would build upon the issues she brought to readers in A Complicated Kindness, with the relation between Mennonite men and women, and fathers and daughters especially, at the forefront. As Toews mentioned in one interview, “I have seen the damage that fundamentalism can do. The way the religion is being interpreted, it’s a culture of control and that emphasis on shame and punishment and guilt is not conducive to robust mental health.” Irma Voth is the story of what happens when one young woman dares to break free of that culture of control and make a new life.
Today, Miriam Toews makes her home in Toronto, Ontario, where she shares a big old house with her mother and one of her daughters.
“Toews . . . is clearly an artistic powerhouse. . . . In this compelling and beautiful novel, Toews’s quirky and authentic voice shows increasing range and maturity. She is well on her way to fulfilling her promise as an important and serious writer.”
“There is something quite mesmerizing about Toews’s prose. It’s to do with the rhythm of her language, with the seeming effortlessness of it and, when combined with her quick, offhand wit, it can enliven even the darkest of moments.”
— Toronto Star
“Toews’s ability to generate comedy and heartache at the same time just soars.”
“Irma Voth is wryly funny and perceptive.”
— National Post
“It is beautiful, strange, and fascinating, and readers wise enough to trust in the author’s sure hand will be rewarded with a novel that takes them someplace altogether unexpected.”
— Kerry Clare, Quill & Quire
“A beautiful, heartbreaking novel. . . . Calls to mind Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1996 epic, Fall On Your Knees.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“A stunning culture clash between the Mennonite and art communities. . . . The internal conflict over when to reveal hard information, in life or in art, is one of Toews’s key themes. A sequence about how it feels to tell the truth is a knockout.”
— NOW (Toronto) NNNN