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Swing Low

A Life

by Miriam Toews

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literary, personal memoirs
list price: $21.00
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
published: 2017
ISBN:9780735274570
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

From the bestselling author of A Complicated Kindness comes an extraordinary memoir about her father and his struggle with manic depression. Now in a stunning new package.

     One morning, Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular school teacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression. In Swing Low, his daughter Miriam recounts Mel's life as she imagines he would have told it, right up to the day he took his final walk. A gracefully written and compassionate recounting of a man's battle with depression in a small Mennonite community, Swing Low is a moving meditation on illness, family, faith and love.

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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 is the author of six bestselling novels: Summer of My Amazing LuckA Boy of Good BreedingA Complicated Kindness (Canada Reads 2006, Canada Reads Canadian Bestseller of the Decade 2010), The Flying TroutmansIrma Voth, and All My Puny Sorrows (finalist for the Giller Prize and winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize). She is a winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Writers' Trust Marian Engel/Timothy Findley Award. She lives in Toronto.

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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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