Winnipeg writer Miriam Toews’s driving family saga
From Homer’s Odyssey to Route 66, there’s a long tradition of fetishizing the open road in Western art. Winnipeg-based writer Miriam Toews hits the highway in her new novel, but don’t expect the freedom of On the Road or the cool factor of Easy Rider. Hattie, the narrator of Toews’s The Flying Troutmans, drives a decidedly unromantic Ford Aerostar that’s bleeding oil. Her travelling companions are her niece and nephew, an 11-year-old chatterbox who’s reading Corporate Media: Threat to Democracy and a moody 15-year-old who’s retreated into his hoodie and headphones.
Toews is terrifically self-deprecating; at a recent reading she tried to talk fans out of buying her novel, saying they could wait and get it at the library. With her fifth book in a dozen years, though, the writer has developed what you might call an oeuvre. Troutmans opens with a rueful statement delivered in the frank, funny narrative voice readers have come to expect from Toews. "Yeah, so things have fallen apart," admits Hattie, right from the get-go. Her endearingly confused approach to putting them back together revisits many of Toews’s characteristic themes — absent parents, wise children, the lengthening shadows of depression and, of course, the call of the road.
There’s nothing like the close confines of an Aerostar to reveal character.
Toews’s debut novel, 1996’s Summer of My Amazing Luck, involved a car trip in search of a missing dad, and the motor is still running in Troutmans. That highway motif could be a holdover from the writer’s rural adolescence in Steinbach, Man. A prosperous, predominantly Mennonite town about 60 kilometres out of Winnipeg, Steinbach is sometimes called "the automobile city" because of its many car dealerships.
"The driving thing, the car thing, the road thing — that’s huge for rural Manitobans," says Toews, reflecting on the momentousness of her sweet sixteen in a recent interview. "The drivers’ license testers came to town on the day of my birthday, and I passed the test first time and it was like, wow, freedom. And since then, I’ve loved driving." While the 44-year-old fondly remembers family automobile excursions with her parents and sister, "the road trips that are really meaningful for me are the ones I took with my husband and our kids when they were growing up," she says. "Huge, extensive road trips all over North America. We crisscrossed it several times."
The Flying Troutmans, she says, began "with the idea of a road trip, with people on an ‘urgent mission’ in an enclosed space." That mission revolves around Hattie’s sister Min, who makes only a brief appearance at the beginning of the novel but whose fierce, fragile image factors prominently in Hattie’s narrative. When Min is admitted to the psych ward, Hattie rushes home from Paris to stay with Logan and Thebes, Min’s son and daughter. Daunted by the prospect of parenting this oddball duo, she sets out with the kids to find their long-gone father, armed only with an old address in South Dakota.
There’s nothing like the close confines of an Aerostar to reveal character. Thebes is a caretaker and a worrier, prone to tension stomach aches. With her fake gangsta talk and her instant dictionary definitions, she seems precocious, but she’s still recognizably a little girl, "all arms and legs, like a baby giraffe." Logan is harder to read. Reckless but never malicious, he likes to shoot hoops in the middle of the night and harbours a crush on New York Times magazine writer Deborah Solomon.
"Children and adolescents are rich characters," Toews offers. "They’re full of emotion — trying things on, trying things out. They’re very honest and very resilient." Summer of My Amazing Luck focused on a fiefdom of single mothers and small kids living in a subsidized housing project, and Toews continues to delve into the relationships between parents and children. "I think a lot of it is remembering about my own childhood, about my own kids at that age."
Her novels aren’t autobiographical, though. "Some of the details I take from experience," she admits. The novel’s complicated playlist system, for example, is taken from Toews’s road trips, where everybody took turns with the CD player in order to balance an eclectic roster of hardcore punk, Josie and the Pussycats and John Hiatt. "But the story, the themes aren’t necessarily from my own family. I incorporate elements, but I mix it up, I move it around."
Her recent foray into acting involved its share of trucks and highways and dirt roads. In 2006 Toews took a central role in the film Stellet Licht (Silent Light) by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. Filmed in Plautdietsch, the Low German dialect used by Russian Mennonites, the story takes place in a conservative Mennonite farming community in Chihuahua.
Reygadas spotted Toews’s picture on the dustjacket of her novel A Complicated Kindness (which won the Governor General’s award in 2004) and decided he wanted her to star in his film. Kindness is a portrait of Steinbach on certain levels and not on others; regardless, it encapsulates Toews’ complicated relationship with traditional Mennonite culture. (Moans Nomi Nickel, its agonized adolescent narrator: "As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.")
The eight-week shoot, with a non-professional cast, allowed Toews to enter briefly into another life.
"It was strange, so strange," she recalls. "It was a movie being made in a community that doesn’t really believe in movies. Carlos appreciated the beauty and harmony and rhythms of rural life, of a simple life based on faith and rules and roles that are very rigid, while understanding the negative side of it.
"It’s not the kind of community that I could be a part of," Toews notes, "but I certainly appreciated it more after making that film."
She also appreciated the filmmaking process. "It’s so collaborative. There are so many people involved it seems like it’s never going to work. There’s a crisis every day. It’s a miracle that movies get made."
Novels, meanwhile, are another kind of miracle. Even as Toews is on the road promoting Troutmans, she’s already looking ahead to her next work. "I’m just in that really exciting phase where tiny little embryonic ideas are popping into my head, but they might not go anywhere." It’s all about the journey right now and not the destination — at this point, at least. And as any road-tripper will tell you, that’s not a bad thing.
The Flying Troutmans is published by Knopf Canada and is in stores now.
Alison Gillmor is a Winnipeg-based writer.