Swing Low: A Life

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"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." Now his daughter Miriam, an award-winning writer, has given her father a voice for his whole story. In Swing Low, Miriam recounts Mel's life as she imagines he would have told it, right up to the day he took his final
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Swing Low: A Life

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Overview

"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." Now his daughter Miriam, an award-winning writer, has given her father a voice for his whole story. In Swing Low, Miriam recounts Mel's life as she imagines he would have told it, right up to the day he took his final walk. Toews takes us deep inside the experience of depression, but she also gives us winsome and hilarious tales of country life: growing up on a farm, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a strong, happy family in the midst of private torment.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Imagining her troubled father telling his life story, Canadian novelist Toews (The Flying Troutmans) offers a touching memoir. When her father was 17 years old, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Going against the accepted 1950s medical advice, he dived into life, determined to become a "better human being." He married, raised a family, and taught school for 40 years. Yet when he committed suicide, he felt his life had amounted to little. Toews toggles between her father's memories of a happy life and his current circumstances as a patient in the local hospital, following a breakdown near the end of his life. "How to explain the process of putting the pieces of my brain together: as though I'm attempting to walk down a street and various limbs, arms and legs, continue to drop off my body. I'm getting nowhere." Teaching provided the scaffolding of normalcy for Toews's father, allowing him to function successfully in public, though later he retreated into silence while with his family. Raised within the strict, conservative Mennonite religion, Toews's father never admitted to his illness, seeing it as a flaw festering within his weak character. In this sympathetic telling, Toews shows how the opposite was true. (Sept.)
Maria Russo
“The magic of Swing Low is that Toews makes a life that looked ordinary, even grindingly so, seem exalted.”
Maria Russo
The memoir's epigraph is Kafka's lines about the last moment before a person dies, in which he "surveys his whole life. For the first time—and the last time." Swing Low works beautifully as a literary exploration of what such a survey might look like…the heartbreak of Swing Low is that Mel always blames himself. The magic of it is that Toews makes a life that looked ordinary, even grindingly so, seem exalted.
—The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A father's suicide sets the stage for this wrenching account of a man's lifelong battle with mental illness, creatively written in his voice, as imagined by his daughter. At the age of 17, Mel Toews was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. Psychiatrists warned him he would not be able to live a normal life, yet despite these warnings, he fell in love, got married, reared two daughters, and taught elementary school for more than 40 years in the small town of Steinbach, Manitoba. Mel's ordered life seemed to be a triumph of spirit and self-discipline, yet he often was unable to function, particularly at home (he didn't utter one sound for an entire year). Finally, after a lifetime of struggle, Mel succumbed to the disease and took his own life. During his last days in the hospital, he asked his daughter Miriam to write down words or sentences he hoped would lead him out of his confusion. It was this glimpse into her father's troubled mind that led her to write a longer account from his point of view. She shows the progression of Mel's deterioration, skillfully entwining in his words the effect of the illness not only on the individual, but also on his family. In expressive, often unrelentingly painful prose, the narration ranges from choppy thoughts to moving passages: "I was caught in a no man's land, paralyzed in a place that lay somewhere in between my past and my future, unable to move or dream or call out for help, or even die." Mel's last words to his daughter: "Nothing accomplished." A powerful portrait of a man who, despite all odds, managed to live a normal life.
From the Publisher
“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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062070166
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/6/2011
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

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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Read an 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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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?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2012

    Sad account of mentalillness

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 20, 2010

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    Posted January 8, 2009

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