A Complicated Kindness

by

Miriam Toews

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A Complicated Kindness Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews was born into highly conservative Mennonite community in rural Canada, much like the one her protagonist Nomi inhabits in A Complicated Kindness. At the age of eighteen, Toews left Steinbach to travel the world, working in London and Montreal for several years before moving to Winnipeg and pursuing a Film Studies degree at the University of Manitoba (she later earned a degree in journalism as well). Working on a radio documentary on low-income mothers inspired Toews to write her first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, a story of friendship between two young mothers in a Winnipeg housing project. Since then she has written several novels, many based on her family’s departure from the Mennonite community and struggles with mental illness. She lives in Toronto with her partner and mother, and enjoys babysitting her two grandchildren.
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Historical Context of A Complicated Kindness

Mennonites are members of a Protestant Christian sect, similar to Anabaptism, founded by Menno Simons in 16th-century Holland. Simons’ beliefs included adult baptism (baptizing congregants as adults, rather than infants, so that they can fully understand the ritual) and formally shunning transgressive community members. A relatively small and radical group, Mennonites endured persecution from various repressive governments in Europe. Some Mennonites fled to more tolerant Prussian states, while others pursued freedom in colonial America. Centuries later, many Russian Mennonites (such as Nomi’s ancestors) fled to America after Russia’s Communist Revolution threatened their way of life. Today, Mennonites live and practice their faith in a variety of ways. While some conservative groups live in isolated towns, maintain traditional dress and eschew modern conveniences, others live in mainstream communities and use technology.

Other Books Related to A Complicated Kindness

Miriam Toews is the author of seven novels, many of which address themes present in A Complicated Kindness, such as family relationships and religious doubt. Swing Low: A Life and All My Puny Sorrows, based on the events surrounding the suicide of Toews’ father and sister, both portray families with serious misgivings about life in the Mennonite community, as well as close but tumultuous bonds between sisters. Her most recent novel, Women Talking, portrays sexual abuse within a Mennonite colony and is her most stringent indictment of religious fundamentalism; it’s also a meditation on the shifting relationship between the two sisters at the story’s core. Toew’s themes related to the tenuous coexistence of religious tradition and modern life are echoed, in some ways, in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the story of a thoughtful preacher in the American heartland. Additionally, Wallace Stegner’s essay collection Mormon Country provides a lyrical and nuanced history of Christian sects in North America.
Key Facts about A Complicated Kindness
  • Full Title: A Complicated Kindness
  • When Written: 2004
  • Where Written: Winnipeg, Canada
  • When Published: 2004
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Realistic fiction
  • Setting: East Village, Canada
  • Climax: Nomi’s excommunication from the Mennonite church
  • Antagonist: Religious conservatism, The Mouth
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for A Complicated Kindness

Tangled Relations. Toews joked to the New Yorker that because her parents are second cousins, she is both her mother’s daughter and her mother’s second cousin once removed.

Her Name in Lights. Toews’ novel Irma Voth is inspired by her own experience playing a Mennonite housewife in the 2007 film Silent Light. The film was shot in Plautdietsch, a dialect of German and Dutch spoken by many Mennonites. Toews, who is not fluent, took lessons with her mother in order to play her part.