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Swing Low

A Life

by Miriam Toews

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literary, medical, personal memoirs
list price: $19.95
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
published: 2005
ISBN:9780676977189
publisher: Knopf Canada
imprint: Vintage Canada
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Swing Low

While many father memoirs are remarkable for their inventive excellence, few are as original and as powerful as Swing Low. In Swing Low: A Life, Miriam Toews imagines herself into her father’s head, and brings him back to life as a narrative “I.” Her imaginative accomplishment is all the more remarkable in that her father suffered from bipolar disease throughout his life, and eventually his depression became so deep and his mind so confused that that he committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. Such a story would be horrific and depressing, if it weren’t for the calmness of the narrative voice. Despite the father’s mental illness and suicide, Swing Low is a wonderfully sane and life affirming book.

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Description

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."

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Excerpt

Prologue

"Nothing accomplished."

I don’t know what my father meant when he said it. I had asked him, the day before he took his own life, what he was thinking about, and that was his reply. Two hopeless words, spoken in a whisper by a man who felt he had failed on every level. This book is my attempt to prove my father wrong.

At the age of seventeen, he was diagnosed as suffering from the mental illness known then as manic depression and today as bipolar disorder. His method of self-defence, along with the large amounts of medication he was prescribed, was silence. And maybe, for him, it worked. He managed, against the advice of his psychiatrist, to get married, to rear a family, and to teach elementary school for more than forty years. His psychiatrist warned him, way back in the early 1950s, that the odds of living a normal life were heavily stacked against him. In fact, Dad’s life fell into the typical pattern of our small town of Steinbach, Manitoba: an ordered existence of work, church, and family, with the occasional inevitable upsets along the way. His managing to live an ordinary life was an extraordinary accomplishment. It is a measure of his strength, his high (some would say impossibly high) personal standards, and his extreme self-discipline that he managed to stay sane, organized, and ordinary for so long.

A year or so after his retirement, my parents went out for a drive in the countryside around town. “Well,” said my father after they’d driven in silence for a while, “I did it.” “You’ve done many things, Mel,” said my mom. “What are you referring to?” “I did what they said I would never do,” answered my father.

And he did it exceptionally well. He became a much-loved and respected teacher, known especially for his kindness, exuberance, and booming voice, and at home my mother and my sister and I had everything we could possibly want or need. There was only one thing we missed, and that was hearing him speak. I have often wondered what he would have said about himself, if he had spoken. He never talked about his past, even his childhood, and often he simply didn’t speak at all. His whole world, it seemed, was in the classroom. And when there, he gave it his all. My sister and I, both students of his at one time, used to sit in class in absolute awe. Was this funny, energetic, outspoken man really our father? It must have been teaching, the daily ritual of stepping outside himself and into a vital role, that sustained him all those years.

Had we known then what we know now, we would have understood that the end of his teaching career would, essentially, mean the end of Mel. After his suicide, we were left with many questions. How could this have happened? we asked ourselves over and over. After all, other people have difficulty retiring, but they don’t necessarily kill themselves. I became obsessed with knowing all that I could about his life, searching, I suppose, for clues that would ultimately lead me to the cause of his death. With the help of my mother and my sister and Dad’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, I’ve managed to put a few pieces of the puzzle of his life together. But in spite of many theories and much speculation, there’s really only one answer, and that is depression. A clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair.

At the end of his life, my father, in a rare conversation, asked me to write things down for him, words and sentences that would lead him out of his confusion and sadness to a place and time that he might understand. “You will be well again,” I wrote. “Please write that again,” he’d ask. I wrote many things over and over and over, and he would read each sentence, each declaration and piece of information out loud. Eventually, it stopped making sense to him. “You will be well again?” he’d ask me, and I’d say, “No, Dad, you will be well again.” “I will be well again?” he’d ask. “Yes,” I’d say. “I will be well again,” he’d repeat. “Please write that down.”

Soon I was filling up pages of yellow legal notepads with writing from his own point of view so he could understand it when he read it to himself. After his death, when I began writing this book, I continued to write in the same way. It was a natural extension of the writing I’d done for him in the hospital, and a way, though not a perfect one, of hearing what my father might have talked about if he’d ever allowed himself to. If he’d ever thought it would matter to anybody.

After his death, I read everything I could find on mental illness and suicide, poring over facts and statistics, survivors’ accounts, reasons, clues, anything at all that might help me to understand, or if not to understand then at least to accept, my father’s decision and to live with it. By dragging some of the awful details into the light of day, they became much less frightening. I have to admit, my father didn’t feel the same way, but he found a way to alleviate his pain, and so have I.

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Contributor notes

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.

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Editorial Review

“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.”
Quill &Quire

“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.”
Toronto Star

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