Left alone with her sad, peculiar father, Nomi Nickel's days are spent piecing together why her mother and sister have disappeared and contemplating her inevitable career at Happy Family Farms, a chicken slaughterhouse on the outskirts of East Village, a town founded by Mennonites on the cold, flat plains of Manitoba, Canada. This darkly funny novel is the world according to Nomi, a bewildered and wry sixteen-year-old trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. In Nomi's droll, refreshing voice, we're told the story of an eccentric, loving family that falls apart as each member lands on a collision course with the only community any of them have ever known.
"A darkly funny and provocative novel." O, the Oprah Magazine
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.
Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.
I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.
One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.
I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.
It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.
Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.
Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.
Reading Group Guide
1. Nomi frequently interrupts her narrative to comment on word choice — both her own and that of others. Unreal, party, groovy, two-wheeler, keel, blouse and future are a few examples. What does language represent to Nomi? In what way is her fascination with words informed by her Mennonite upbringing?
2. Nomi describes herself and Ray as “two mental patients just getting through another day.” The novel contains many other references to insanity. What elements of a rigidly interpreted Mennonite religion would you say are not conducive to robust mental health?
3. Mr. Quiring appears on the first page of the book then plays a seemingly minor role until the last chapter. How would you describe his presence in the novel — both in terms of the story itself and how the story is told? What does Nomi mean when she says: “You provided my family with an ending”?
4. Nomi has been described as a “latter-day Holden Caulfield.” What aspects of A Complicated Kindness make it a coming-of-age story that resonates with readers regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds?
5. Of the bloodstain on her wall, Nomi writes: “…every time I looked at it I was reminded that I was, at that very moment, not bleeding from my face. And those are powerful words of hope, really.” What role does hope play in the novel? How does each member of the Nickel family experience hope?
6. What is the significance of the book’s title? Would you describe the departures of Trudi and Ray as acts of “a complicated kindness”? What other scenes reveal this quality at play?
7. How would you characterize Nomi’s style of humour? What function does it serve for her? What passages stand out for you as especially funny?
8. Discuss the symbolic significance of the following images: the ugly black dresses “dancing wildly in the wind;” Trudie’s passport in the drawer; the graffiti on passing trains.
9. What is Nomi’s vision of an ideal family? How do her views change over the course of the book?
10. It seems that the people of East Village are forced to live a contradiction: the tangible world is false; the hereafter is real. How does Nomi ultimately come to terms with this contradiction? Consider, for instance, her “new religion” as she describes it in Chapter 24.
- Reissued to correspond with the publication of Toews' new book (Bloomsbury), Women Talking
- This reissue, like Counterpoint's recent reissues of works by Eve Babitz, Mary Robison, Ruth Jhabvala, and others, signals a commitment to keeping this important writer's work widely available to passionate fans and new readers alike
- An important backlist must-have for any serious literary fiction section, as well as for MFA and Canadian/Contemporary Lit course adoptions