Swing Low: A Life

Swing Low: A Life

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by Miriam Toews

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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.

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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 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.

Editorial Reviews

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.
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.)
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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"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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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.”

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Swing Low 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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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.