Swing Low: A Life

Swing Low: A Life

by Miriam Toews


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“Audacious, original and profoundly moving . . . . Healing is a likely outcome of a book imbued with the righteous anger, compassion and humanity of Swing Low.” —Globe and Mail (Canada)

Reverberating with emotional power, authenticity, and insight, Swing Low is Miriam Toews's daring and deeply affecting memoir of her father’s struggle with manic depression in a small Mennonite community in rural Canada. Personal and touching, a stirring counterpart to her novel IrmaVoth and reminiscent of works by Susan Cheever, Gail Caldwell, Mary Karr, and Alexandra Styron, Swing Low is an elegiac ode to a difficult life by an author drawing from the deepest well of insight,craft, and emotion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062070166
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/06/2011
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 204,309
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Miriam Toews was born in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She has published five novels and a memoir of her father, and is the recipient of numerous literary awards in Canada, including the Governor General’s Literary Award (for A Complicated Kindness) and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for The Flying Troutmans). In 2010 she received the prestigious Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for her body of work. Irma Voth is Toews’s most recent novel. She lives in Toronto.

Read an Excerpt


"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.

What People are Saying About This

Maria Russo

“The magic of Swing Low is that Toews makes a life that looked ordinary, even grindingly so, seem exalted.”

Reading Group Guide

1. Swing Low is a portrait of a human life but also of a small town at a particular point in time. What factors do you think may have exacerbated Mel’s struggle with bipolar disorder? Consider, for instance, traditional gender roles, aspects of the Mennonite religion and the treatment of mental illness.

2. At the beginning of the book, Mel describes his writing as a "series of jerky stills, courtesy of my renegade mind." How would you describe the symptoms of bipolar disorder based on Mel’s account of his life and inner world? How is his mental state occasionally revealed in the way in which he expresses himself?

3. What role does the idea of home play in Swing Low? Consider, for instance, Mel’s recurring dream, his feelings toward his pink house, his memories from childhood and his description of depression as "not feeling at home in this world."

4. What is the author’s role in the book outside of the brief prologue and epilogue? How would you characterize the relationship between Miriam and her father based on Mel’s account?

5. For those who have read A Complicated Kindness, what similarities and differences do you see between Mel and Ray? Elvira and Trudie? Steinbach and East Village?

6. What is the relationship between loss and knowledge in both Swing Low and A Complicated Kindness? Discuss the ways in which Mel Toews and Nomi Nickel value words. How do they use humour?

7. What significance do flowers, sunshine and travel have in the book? How does Mel occasionally move toward freedom? How does he resist it? Discuss the moments in which Elvira inspires him with her courage and high spirits.

8. Mel writes: "I vacillated wildly between thinking everything mattered, that every word, every action, every task was important, to thinking that nothing at all mattered, that everything was futile." Also: "I felt there was no hope for the world, that evil would inevitably triumph over good, and that there was, therefore, no point in striving for goodness. And yet I also felt that the struggle to be good was the purpose of life. Certainly of my life." What contradictions does Mel negotiate throughout his life?

9. "I’m sixty-two years old and still wanting my mother to hold me in her arms just once and tell me that she loves me." Does Mel ever forgive his mother? Does he at least achieve some measure of understanding her?

10. Swing Low has been called a “genre-bender.” What qualities of the book strike you as characteristic of fiction, of creative non-fiction and of traditional biography?

Customer Reviews

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Swing Low 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
MeditationesMartini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an admirable, I'd even say a noble, project from Toews--a gesture to making pain make sense, a (Hail-Mary) push to find peace and sense on the other side of horror through words. And when I think about how hard I'd find it to delve into the places she does--her project is a biography of her father, imagined writing from his hospital bed after a series of confusing and debilitating strokes--I'm inclined to forgive the places where she backs away, seemingly lets the public (or family) man stand in for the private (although a weirdly proper, conservative, manic-depressive small-town Mennonite like Mel Toews, you wonder if even were he writing to himself that's the persona he's inhabit anyway. In some ways I guess it's easier to cut to the truth about people in the third person--we are always self-representing). So it's not that I find this unworthy--it's more just the dolorous arithmetic of how many hours I've already spent reading stories about Mennonites from small towns on the Canadian prairies divided by how many hours I've spent reading in a ratio to how much interest I have in reading about Mennonites from small towns on the Canadian prairies versus all life's other wonders. It's not Toews's fault, and I'm aware every other literature has this disease too to a greater or lesser degree--and even more so when you live somewhere, because then you get the official culture or language arts-curriculum version of a tradition, and the small town on the prairies is safely realist, ungarish, uncontroversial--but I blame my lowish rating of this book on Canadian literature's refusal to branch out a little.
TheLostEntwife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Let me just say ¿ I did not enjoy Irma Voth ¿ the fiction novel that Miriam Toews wrote and I reviewed just a few weeks ago. So it was with some trepidation that I picked Swing Low up off my shelf.I was blown away.Seriously, this book was nothing at all like Irma Voth. It was clear, concise, and a beautiful tribute to her father. Miriam¿s voice, as she speaks from her father¿s point of view, is crystal clear, heart-breaking and filled with love. I never once got the sense that he was, in any way shape or form, a bad man. I understood that he was sick, broken in a way, I understood that he loved his family ¿ his wife and his children, and I wept when we came to the point of his last decision.All through the book what spoke loudest to me was his daughters forgiveness. Miriam shows with complete clarity that, while she loved her father dearly, she cannot hate him for what he did. How powerful is that forgiveness? It spoke to my heart, it made me weep, it made me appreciate my own parents more and think about just how serious, how dreadful and how dangerous mental disorders can be.Take the time to hug your family. Tell them you love them. Read this book if you need a good kick in the pants to remind you of how special they are.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very well written. Even though she went back and forth from different stages in the past to her father's sometimes strange writings in the hospital, you don't get confused. It was funny at times and always vulnerable, showing the love this man had for his family and their love for him despite his illness.