"My Hometown" by Miriam Toews
Earlier this year, we asked some of our best-known writers to tell us about new changes in a place close to their hearts. Miriam Toews reflects on startling changes to Steinbach, Manitoba, the Mennonite prairie village of her childhood.
Last summer I returned to my hometown of Steinbach, Manitoba and discovered that my small closed community of god-fearing, world-fearing, conservative Mennonites had turned into a hustling, bustling modern-day Gomorrah. I had spent most of my childhood and adolescence and writing career railing against the injustice of having to grow up in the world's most backward town where even the whispered idea of building a library was met with fear and condemnation so I was not prepared for such strange and disturbing changes.
The highway into town was festooned with its usual billboards exhorting all travellers to come to the Lord and to not abort their fetuses — Home again! — But this time there were just as many shiny fast-food joints. Weird, but hey, I could handle that. Mennonites get hungry, too, and don't always feel like going out to the barn and slaughtering a pig every time they want a snack.
Finding a new Catholic parish right next to the cemetery where my father and uncles are buried, on the other hand, was a bit alarming. When I was a kid it was understood that Catholics weren't real Christians. They were alcoholics and sluts who loved fancy things and were just as dangerous to have around as libraries. They were mostly sort of French but we dumped them in with "The English" which referred to anybody who wasn't a Mennonite and was therefore somehow an enemy.
I drove down to the old Main Street and stopped for a coffee at my favourite Mennonite restaurant and was stunned to see liquor being offered on the menu. I asked my waitress what the hell was going on in my hometown and she told me that about a year ago the town had voted to overturn the ages-old liquor ban. Steinbach had been the
largest dry community in Manitoba, and now everyone in town could wash their head cheese and holopchi down with a glass of Bordeaux.
As a teenager, my friends and I would drive to the old Frantz Hotel and Bar, just on the other side of the municipality line — the only place booze was legal. We'd drink and there was nothing the black-suited elders could do about it. Steinbach's one cop, a hapless
nerd with a water gun, would sit in the parking lot waiting to confiscate ill-begotten liquor.
I decided to drive around and search for things I remembered. I went past new housing developments with street names meant to reflect some kind of generic, soap-opera town. Now alongside Friesen, Giesbrecht, and Reimer I found Chaddington Bay, Abbey Lane and Appleton Place.
I passed a building I had never seen before and read the sign on the outside of it: Steinbach Arts Council. Since when do Mennonites want art? Art is a sin. Art is vanity. What's wrong with quilting and baking a week's supply of buns? C'mon people. When I was a kid I was caught dancing joyfully in the hallway of my elementary school and told to stop immediately or "Miss Toews I will clip your wings." Now here the Steinbach Arts Council was actually advertising for all to see its own School of Dance, where local Mennonites can learn, from the age of three to adult, jazz, tap, hip hop or something called Broadway Stars.
What are the kids there going to rebel against if life in Steinbach is now a smorgasbord of dance and booze and water parks? I wanted my hometown back. I wanted it to stay frozen in the past. My old town was supposed to remain exactly the way it was when I was a kid, if only to show how much my life had changed since then.
Finally, I drove to the corner of First Street and William Avenue to see if my initials were still sunk into the old pavement. They were there but I could barely make them out. I knelt down and traced the letters with my finger, a tender hello and goodbye to my young self. Someday it would be like I’d never been there at all.
Miriam Toews is the author of five novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck; A Boy of Good Breeding; the Governor General Award-winning, Canada Reads-winning A Complicated Kindness; The Flying Troutmans; and Irma Voth. She also wrote the non-fiction book Swing Low: A Life. Toews grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba and now lives in Toronto.