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Summer of My Amazing Luck

Summer of My Amazing Luck

by Miriam Toews

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A Novel by the Governor General’s Literary Award—winning author of A Complicated Kindness

Lucy Van Alstyne always thought she’d grow up to become a forest ranger. Instead, at the age of eighteen, she’s found herself with quite a different job title: Single Mother on the Dole. As for the father of her nine-month-old


A Novel by the Governor General’s Literary Award—winning author of A Complicated Kindness

Lucy Van Alstyne always thought she’d grow up to become a forest ranger. Instead, at the age of eighteen, she’s found herself with quite a different job title: Single Mother on the Dole. As for the father of her nine-month-old son, Dillinger, well…it could be any of number of guys.

At the Have-a-Life housing project–aptly nicknamed Half-a-Life by those who call it home–Lucy meets Lish, a zany and exuberant woman whose idea of fashion is a black beret with a big silver spider brooch stuck on it. Lish is the mother of four daughters, two by a man on welfare himself and twins from a one-week stand with a fire-eating busker who stole her heart–and her wallet.

Living on the dole isn’t a walk in the park for Lucy and Lish. Dinner almost always consists of noodles. Transportation means pushing a crappy stroller through the rain. Then there are the condescending welfare agents with their dreaded surprise inspections. And just across the street is Serenity Place, another housing project with which Half-a-Life is engaged in a full-on feud. When the women aren’t busy snitching on each other, they’re spreading rumours–or plotting elaborate acts of revenge.

In the middle of a mosquito-infested rainy season, Lish and Lucy decide to escape the craziness of Half-A-Life by taking to the road. In a van held together with coat-hangers and electrical tape and crammed to the hilt with kids and toys, they set off to Colorado in search Lish’s lost love and the father of her twins. Whether they’ll find him is questionable, but the down-and-out adventure helps Lucy realize that this just may be the summer of her amazing luck.

Miriam Toews’s debut novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck opens our eyes to a social class rarely captured in fiction. At once hilarious and heartbreaking, it is inhabited by an unforgettable and poignant group of characters. Shortlisted for both the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award and for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, it also earned Miriam the John Hirsch Award for the Most Promising Manitoba Writer.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Originally published in Canada in 1996, this light treat by the author of A Complicated Kindness and A Boy of Good Breeding sees 18-year-old single mother Lucy Van Alstyne join the nouveau poor on the dole in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At a public housing complex nicknamed Half-A-Life, mothering is the noblest calling and absent fathers are as relevant as orbiting "space junk." Lucy doesn't know which of "eight or nine" fleeting lovers fathered her infant son, Dillinger (named after John Dillinger, who Lucy insists is a lucky man and still alive); her fast friend Alicia fantasizes about reuniting with the fire-eating juggler who got her pregnant with twins during a one-night stand several years earlier. Lucy fabricates letters to Alicia from the fire-eater, and the two women and their five kids set off to search for him. The novel offers a humorous look at the absurdities of the Canadian welfare system while unwinding the intricacies of a sticky-sweet friendship. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
Praise for Summer of My Amazing Luck:

“A comic take on what initially appears a most improbable topic for humour … it works.”
The Globe and Mail

“In a style rather like Barbara Kingsolver, Toews has her characters find a way to make joy in their lives.”
–Winnipeg Free Press

Praise for the writing of Miriam Toews:

“Wise, edgy, unforgettable.”
The Globe and Mail

“Brilliant … there is beauty and compassion in [Toews’s] portrayal of Nomi’s struggle.”
The New York Times Book Review


“Exquisitely written and faceted…. Heartbreaking and humorous…. From beginning to end the book is unusually calibrated and incredibly compelling.”
The Guardian (UK)

“Told with the slouchy, cool grace of a misfit teen, this sparkly novel is destined to become a coming-of-age classic.”
Elle (UK)

“At first Toews’s characters seem merely quirky; then they get under your skin, and finally, it seems, into your very blood, where they quicken the heart.”
The Globe and Mail

“Delightfully humourous, subversive and naughtily clever.”
Prairie Fire

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


Lish had been a lifer even before the trouble started with Serenity Place. She had four daughters, two of them with the same guy and the other two, twins, with a carefree street performer who had fallen in love with Lish’s hands. Perfect for balls, he’d said, juggling them that is. Now jugglers never make cracks about balls, Lish informed me, they just don’t. Lish knew a lot about the theatre, about working a room, drawing a crowd, about blocking and leading, about the superstitions of theatre people. She had always loved the stage. Or the street, or wherever it is that people perform. She had met the juggler in the hospitality suite of the hotel at which all the performers were staying. Volunteering, for Lish, was a good way to meet theatre people without violating welfare rules, and it was a nice break from the kids. This street performer, absent father of the twins, said he loved Lish and suggested that she join him on the road. He could teach her to eat fire, juggle knives, walk on stilts. He showed her a newspaper clipping of himself from The Miami Herald and the headline was “Magic, Music and Tomfoolery,” and then there was a photo of him breaking a chain with his ­chest.

Just like Zampano in “La Strada,” he’d said. Lish was giddy with the proposition and the free booze of the hospitality suite, and so she agreed to join him on the road, on the condition that she could bring her daughters, numbering two at the time. “Not a problem, not a problem,” he said, “they’ll bring in more cash,” and then he made a red handkerchief disappear up Lish’s nose. And, of course, reappear. Something he himself had failed to do after impregnating Lish in his hotel room that night, while her long beautiful hands caressed his oily back and the hot summer night got hotter. Lish found him irresistible with his sad eyes and his ­world-­weary bearing and silly jokes that in and of themselves weren’t funny at all, but when he said them seemed, at least to Lish, to define comedy. And Lish loved to laugh. What was funniest though to Lish was his utter seriousness about ­sex.

He didn’t say a word or crack a smile throughout, and Lish had to pretend that a snort of laughter she let escape while he focussed in on the homestretch was really an uncontrollable gasp of pleasure. She had hoped he’d think it was her unusual way of expressing herself while in the throes of passion. Snorting. But she wasn’t sure. In any case, it didn’t matter. The next morning while Lish slept sated and pregnant with not one but two of the busker’s babies, he made himself, along with Lish’s cotton purse, disappear for good. Lish said he had left a note that said “Catcha on the flip side.” Can you believe it? Lish said his juggling was much better than his ­writing.

For a while Lish wondered if her snorting had made him leave, but really she knew that it hadn’t been her, it had been the road, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it. Some people were just like that. All the road had to do was look up at them and they were gone. Poof. And so it was with the father of her twins. She wished she had found out what his name was, but hey . . . Lish was the kind of person who enjoyed telling this tale to people. It was romantic, reckless. And if the twins asked about their dad, she could build him up for them, make him a hero, a rogue, a poet, a jester. Once I pointed out to Lish that the twins might like more details, some fleshing out of the story, maybe an address or a present on their birthday, a postcard. Lish said, “Maybe. Maybe not.”

I know that Lish still kept a big silver spoon room service had brought up to the hotel room the night she and the busker got together, and the twins, when they were old enough, took turns using it to scoop the natural chunky peanut butter Lish bought at a health food ­co-­op. They’d say, “It’s my turn to use Dad’s spoon.” And Lish would smile and hand it over. Who knew what she was thinking. The older girls had a dad they saw fairly regularly and for a while were willing to let the twins use him as theirs, too. But the twins didn’t want him. They were happy enough with their ­own.

I should tell you right now how I got to where I am: single mother on the dole, public housing, all that. It wasn’t a goal of mine, certainly. As a child I never once dreamed, “I will be a poor mother.” I had fully intended to be a forest ranger. Now I realize there just isn’t enough human contact in that field for me. But then, look where human contact got me. They said I hadn’t grieved properly over my mother’s death. That was the reason I became promiscuous, they said. They said I snuck out of my bedroom window every night because I needed to forget. I needed to forget, they said, because I couldn’t bear the sadness of remembering. That’s what they meant by grieving properly: remembering. Remembering everything and reacting to it and releasing it. There was more to it, but I can’t remember what it was, ha ha. So I’m not proud of it or anything, but it happened. And it’s how I got to where I am. ­Half-­a-­Life Housing. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, city with the most hours of sunshine per year (that’s another thing they say).


Somewhere along the line I became pregnant. With Dill, my son who is now nine months old. His full name is Dillinger. I don’t know who his father is. Like Lish says, if you eat a whole can of beans, how do you know which one made you fart? I don’t think it’s the caretaker at my dad’s church, because Dill’s hands are very big. Those huge hands were the first thing I noticed about Dill. The caretaker, on the other hand, had very small hands. I remember, because after we’d had sex leaning up against the pulpit, he wandered over to the organ and started playing “Midnight Special.” I lay on top of the organ, naked as a cherub, and I remember peering down at the caretaker’s hands as he played. They were small and cupped and soft like a baby’s. So I’m quite sure he’s not Dill’s father. And, to tell you the truth, there were eight or nine other guys I was with at the time Dill was conceived, and most of them have faded from my memory. If I ever did know their names, I’ve just about forgotten them. At least I’ve tried to. And all this because I didn’t grieve ­properly.

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 a 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 a 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.

In an interview with Herizons magazine, Toews discusses the motif of the absent mother in both Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Complicated Kindness: “The relationship I have with my mother is so strong and loving and fun, that maybe I had to, in order to have a character who was working through something difficult, have her gone – dead, or missing, or whatever, just absent – in order to create that conflict for my character. And, to get all psychoanalytical about it, I’ve been trying to understand my father for a long time now, and I think that in my own life, growing up, etcetera, my mother was sort of this buffer between him and me, in that she kind of protected me from his sadness and tried to make life fun and upbeat all the time. So maybe, in order for my character to understand her father better, and assuming that my characters are in some ways me, that particular buffer has to be removed.”

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