Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Home Town

Alexandra Schwartz writes a lengthy feature in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine about author Miriam Toews who was born and raised in Steinbach, Manitoba.    

Toews’ eighth novel Women Talking will be released in the United States this week. Covers for the British, Italian and German editions of Women Talking are featured on Toews’ media sites. Schwartz interviewed Toews both in her current Toronto home and during a trip, the two made to Steinbach to explore Toews’ roots, since characters and locations inspired by Steinbach people and places figure prominently in Toews’ novels.

Schwartz also interviewed Steinbach teacher Andrew Unger who studies Toews’ best selling novel A Complicated Kindness with his high school students. Unger once featured Toews on his popular satirical Daily Bonnet website where he mused about why there wasn’t a giant statue of Toews in her hometown.  Of course Unger was ‘schputting’- a Low German word for making fun of something or being irreverent about it. ‘Schputting’ is explained in The New Yorker article with reference to Toews’ own writing.

Unger wasn’t ‘schputting’ however when he told The New Yorker that Steinbach hasn’t really acknowledged the accomplishments of Toews.  “We’ve done nothing as a community to recognize or honour her.”

Why hasn’t Steinbach recognized a woman The New Yorker calls one of Canada’s best-loved and best-known writers, a woman who has won international literary prizes and whose work is critically acclaimed?

I think one reason is that Toews’ books fictionalize real events and people. Steinbach residents who have knowledge of those same events and people tend to get upset because Toews didn’t write about them accurately.   

I was connected in several ways to the Toews’ family and have sometimes caught myself saying as I read Miriam’s books, “But that’s not the way it happened.”  I know that Toews is writing fiction but I understand how some people might be unsettled reading her fictionalized version of true events.

Toews’ mother Elvira puts it even more strongly in The New Yorker article when she talks about people who say her daughter “just tells lies.”  Mennonite novelist Dora Dueck confesses on her blog she initially struggled with something similar while reading Women Talking.  Dueck has high praise for the book but says she had to lecture herself that it was a novel and not journalism.

Another reason why Toews may not be lauded in her hometown is that the predominantly Mennonite population is troubled by her honest revelations about the abuse, oppression and hypocrisy particularly directed towards women by the historically entrenched patriarchy in Mennonite churches and the church’s tendency at least in the past, to ignore or silence people with addictions, mental health issues and family dysfunction.  The devastating consequences of these kinds of attitudes are being brought to light every day in every kind of church denomination but Toews’ books focus on the Mennonite church and so some Mennonites might feel they have been singled out for unfair criticism.

To balance Toews’ perceived lack of popularity in her hometown one has to remember she gives voice to many people who know from first-hand experience that her accounts of growing up in in a small conservative community, and her characters’ experiences with the church ring true, no matter where they live or what religious affiliation they might have. Toews may not have enough fans in her hometown to be given recognition with her name on a building, or street sign, or piece of public art, but she does have a multitude of fans around the world who appreciate her and love to read her books.  

Other posts

Are Men and Women’s Friendships Different?

Mennonite Nuns

Violence in Christian Families


Filed under Books, Religion

7 responses to “Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Home Town

  1. For some, acknowledging Miriam Toews’ fiction is to disavow the whole idea of, “things happen for a reason.” These cynical oh-bah-nayers might offer a nod to her talent but begrudge anything beyond faint praise. In the smug logic of some, her unequivocal success in the “outside” world is hard to take, but they quietly take heart that she has not broken through and is not given credit at home and in the church. “Where it counts,” as they might add.

    And yet, is critical self-examination not at the very core of Mennonite belief? Sure it is. So too is a charge to care for the oppressed.

    Besides, it’s fiction. It’s not a gratuitous Op-Ed in the Carillon, or some just-so stump speech, or a cow-towing letter to the editor. It’s not a sermon. Miriam’s writing is a brave, lofty, imaginary kick-in-the-Betje that allows all—manipulator, victim, bystander—to stare the thing in its ugly face and make a choice, outside of the constraints of social ties that bind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rhonda Lee Martens

    I have read her novels. Yes she has terrific talent but anyone can write Mennonite bashing. Why does she not move on and write a novel about another subject. She projects much bitterness and it becomes extremely tiring reading her constant poor me attitude. We all have to move on from our past. She seems entrenched in complaining about Mennonites. Someday she might be able to move on and give us some terrific novel with a positive energy. I’m waiting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Rhonda,
      Actually some of Miriam’s earlier books were much more light hearted and funny. I thought the books about her Dad (Swing Low) and her sister (All My Puny Sorrows) addressed important questions about mental health. I am not sure if you read the article in The New Yorker but Miriam really does seem to have moved on despite a divorce and the death of two immediate family members from suicide, Quite something to survive. It would be interesting however if she wrote a book about something completely different. As a writer myself however I know that most of the fiction we write stems in some way from our own experience. Thanks so much for reading my blog post and responding. I really appreciate it.


  3. I wasn’t going to comment on Miriam Toews’ writing, but I finally am ready to go on the record with what bothers me about her work. First, as a Mennonite myself, I resent any one person setting themselves up as the true voice of a Mennonite experience. My ancestors were Swiss Mennonites who came to the USA many decades before Toews people immigrated to Canada. We come from very different historical and cultural backgrounds and have had very different experiences growing up as females in Mennonite communities. There are some similarities as there are also with nonMennonite societies, but in my childhood, we didn’t even consider the Canadian Mennonites whom Toews represents to be true Mennonites. This was the same for Mennonite Brethren, another wild branch from our true vine. I had to explain to my friends who read the book “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” that there was very little similarity between my Mennonite life and the culture presented in that book. Couldn’t Toews give some sort of prologue in which she admits that she is not representing all Mennonites, but rather a small, unique group who migrated after passing through the Ukraine and Russia and diverging in church polity and social practice from other Mennonites who came from Europe much earlier and did not have the same traumatizing experiences Toews’ ancestors did? As an adult, I am not concerned about who is or isn’t a “real” Mennonite; I care most about telling the truth about who Mennonites are, not just the ones in Steinbach. I also find Toews’ unremitting jaundiced view of her past life tedious and very overworked.


    • Hi,
      I kind of know where you are coming from. My one set of grandparents are American Mennonites and the others came to Canada with the second wave of migration in the late 1920s and they were not nearly as conservative as the Mennonites in Miriam’s books. I moved to Steinbach at age 8 and what an eye opener. Kids telling me I was going to hell for all kinds of things my family did. I think people tend to generalize about Mennonites with or without Miriam Toews. I have done tons of traveling all around the world and when I say I am a Mennonite people expect me to be more like the Amish.
      I don’t know if you read Dora Dueck’s blog which I link in my post- she talks about how she dealt with the same thing you mention- a generalizing of Mennonites in Miriam’s book.
      Of course sadly as the news relates every day the patriarchy in every denomination has wrought some pretty awful things for women and children and the Mennonite church is no exception.
      Like you I am proud to be a Mennonite but in the 70s and 80s I almost left the church because of the way women weren’t allowed to be leaders and I know from my LGBTQ friends that they feel Miriam very much reflects their experience growing up in conservative Christian communities.
      I don’t know who you are or how you found my blog post but thanks so much for reading it and for providing such a thoughtful response.


      • I was born and raised Mennonite, and my story is very different from the stories of my other Mennonite girlfriends. When I read the description of her new book, it resonated with me because I remembered the last night I was in bed with my husband and the realization hit me–I would die if I didn’t leave him–our relationship was lethal even though we had left our Mennonite tradition years earlier!

        I had been so carefully taught to obey my husband that I did not just get up and leave right away. I had to think about it. I believe that marriage was a lifetime commitment and was so convinced of my minor value that I felt I should stay in the marriage no matter what.

        I am glad that she is giving a fictional voice to my experience. I believe there are plenty of other writers that give another view. Like I mentioned above, I was amazed at how many of my close friends at Eastern Mennonite College 50 years ago seemed to have great relationships with their fathers and the the people of their communities. I related more to one of my ex-husband’s acquaintances whose family was strict and abusive toward her in the name of religion.

        I write Amish Time Travel books under the penname of C.K.Stein, and have studied the history of our faith. I think the original Mennonite message of an inner kingdom of peace is right on. In some Mennonite communities I’ve found that message alive and well, in others I’ve found leaders who seem to gather hurting women around them so they can exercise their cult-like need to control every area of their lives.

        Their answer to sexual abuse is to demand forgiveness as a permission to re-abuse them.


    • I also felt this. I would not consider the “women talking” to be part of the Mennonite tradition. They seem more like a break-off cult, to me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.