After her father took his own life in 1998, Miriam Toews decided to face her confusion and pain straight on. In writing her father’s memoir, she was motivated by two primary goals: For her own sake, she needed to understand, or at least accept, her father’s final decision. For her father’s sake, she needed to honour him, to elucidate his life and to demonstrate its worth.
Apart from its brief prologue and epilogue, Swing Low is written entirely from Mel Toews’s perspective. Miriam Toews has her father tell his story from bed as he waits in a Steinbach hospital to be transferred to a psychiatric facility in Winnipeg. Mel turns to writing to make sense of his condition, to review his life in the hope of seeing it more clearly. He remembers himself as an anxious child, the son of a despondent father and an alcoholic mother, who never once made him feel loved. At seventeen he was diagnosed with manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder). His psychiatrist’s predictions were grim: Mel shouldn’t count on marrying, starting a family or holding down a job. With great courage and determination, Mel went on to do all three: he married his childhood sweetheart, had two happy daughters and was a highly respected and beloved teacher for forty years.
Although Mel was able to keep his disorder hidden from the community, his family frequently witnessed his unravelling. Over the years this schism between his public and private life grew wider. An outgoing and tireless trailblazer at school, he often collapsed into silence and despair at home. Ironically, in trying to win his family’s love through hard work and accomplishments, he deprived them of what they yearned for most: his presence, his voice. Once he retired from teaching – "the daily ritual of stepping outside himself" – Mel lost his creative outlet and, with it, his hope.
In the Globe and Mail, author Moira Farr described Swing Low as "audacious, original and profoundly moving." She added: "Getting into the head of your own father – your own largely silent, mentally ill father, who killed himself – has to be a kind of literary high-wire act that few would dare to try.… Healing is a likely outcome of a book imbued with the righteous anger, compassion and humanity of Swing Low."
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 her 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 her 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. Her most recent novel is the bestselling A Complicated Kindness, which was a Giller Prize finalist and won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. 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.
Published in 2000, Swing Low: A Life won both the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction. The book garnered praise for, among other things, the remarkable courage and candour Toews displayed in writing about her father’s struggle with bipolar disorder and his suicide. In an interview with Maclean’s, she said, “Keeping this hush-hush, regarding it as a shameful thing — I knew how destructive that kind of silence is. I wanted his life to be known and honoured.”
In writing about her father, Toews was also driven by a need to alleviate her own pain and bewilderment. “When somebody you know and love has committed suicide it’s so hard to understand. You just don’t know how it could have happened. You want to be inside that person’s head so you can figure out why this person made this choice.… I wanted to be inside his head, and in order to do that I had to become him,” she says on powells.com.
“Audacious, original and profoundly moving … A deeply affecting work ….This is a document for the living, and its virtues are more than literary; healing is a likely outcome of a book imbued with the righteous anger, compassion and humanity of Swing Low.”
—The Globe and Mail
“ A fine, fluent book teeming with anecdote and incident, echoes and images ….Swing Low is a detailed, textured portrait, not just of human life, but of a community, of small-town, Mennonite Manitoba.”
“Toews ’ novelistic skills (the award-winning comic novels Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding) are richly apparent in her evocative characterizations and in the deft drama of the narrative ….A profoundly affecting book.”