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Swing Low: A Life

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One morning, Mel Toews put on his coat and hat, walked out of town, and took his own life. A loving husband and father, a faithful member of the Mennonite church, and an immensely popular schoolteacher, Mel was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggling with bipolar disorder, he could no longer face the darkness that clouded his world. In this moving meditation on illness, family, faith, and love, Mel’s daughter, critically acclaimed novelist and reporter Miriam Toews, recounts her ...

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Swing Low: A Life

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Overview

One morning, Mel Toews put on his coat and hat, walked out of town, and took his own life. A loving husband and father, a faithful member of the Mennonite church, and an immensely popular schoolteacher, Mel was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggling with bipolar disorder, he could no longer face the darkness that clouded his world. In this moving meditation on illness, family, faith, and love, Mel’s daughter, critically acclaimed novelist and reporter Miriam Toews, recounts her father’s life as he would have told it, in his own voice, right up to the day of his final walk.

Swing Low is a bold, gracefully written, and compassionate recounting of one man’s heartbreaking battle with depression.

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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 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.

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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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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • 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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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2010

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    Posted January 8, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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