Thursday, February 18, 2016

Staff Pick - Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Dark family secrets brought Irma Voth, an eighteen year old, and her family from Canada to live in a Mennonite community in Chihuahua Mexico. They appear to live in another place and time, living simply and tending to cattle. As an eighteen year old Irma's first experiences include using a pay phone and going to a movie. I began reading with the assumption that the book was set in an earlier part of the twentieth century until one of the characters mentioned googling something.

Irma's relationship with her family has broken down with her decision to marry a Mexican boy. Not only has she been shunned by her family, but her young and unpredictable husband has abandoned her as well. Irma is not an untypical teen with the desires for personal freedom and self-determination conflicting with a remaining degree of childish dependence. A movie company comes to town to make a film about the Mennonite way of life. Trilingual Irma finds herself employed as a translator and companion. Irma's father is violently opposed to the film project, and for her own safety and the safety of her younger teenage sister and her infant sister, the three girls flee to Mexico City to begin a new life.

Irma Voth (M) by Miriam Toews begins quite slowly with a somewhat bleak and moody atmosphere. It was a bit distressing to see this young girl abandoned by everyone in her life. I was just about to give up and move on when the action suddenly began to pick up pace. When the girls made the move to Mexico City, Irma, out of necessity, took charge of her young sisters and proved herself resourceful enough to secure them shelter and employment. The story seemed to become easier to read once the girls had something approaching a normal life. The characters which seemed lost and blurry in the first half of the book became clear and defined. Irma Voth is a thought provoking coming of age story which explores the effect of childhood trauma on subsequent generations, family violence and forgiveness.

Miriam Toews won the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the 2006 Canada Reads Competition for A Complicated Kindness (M).

If you are interested in reading more about the Mennonite community, you might like to try Children of the Day (M) by Sandra Birdsell. "In Children of the Day, the Giller-nominated author Sandra Birdsell has created an indelible, life-affirming portrait of a marriage on the knife-edge of disaster, in the tiny mythical town of Union Plains, Manitoba. She not only captures the unruly hearts of Sara and Oliver Vandal, but also all the sticking points, strengths and traumas of their Mennonite and Metis cultures. Their meeting was a near-fatal accident, but from the moment that Oliver Vandal, driving cab in Winnipeg, almost ran Sara Vogt down, the lives of these unlikely lovers have been rudely, sometimes bruisingly, sometimes gloriously, intertwined. Sara, a Mennonite immigrant stifled by a bloody family history and the secrets and propriety of her people, took one look at the darkly handsome Oliver and made a flying leap into his arms. Through twenty years of marriage and ten children, she has hung on for dear life, using her considerable willpower to create a home that can harbour a dozen Vandals in a tiny house on the outskirts of Union Plains." Discover

Alone in the Classroom (M) by Elizabeth Hay is another example of Canadian literary fiction dealing with secrets in a small community. "In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day. Connie’s niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie’s past and her mother’s broken childhood. In the process, she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious (and unrelated) deaths of two young girls. As the novel moves deeper into their lives, the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles – aunt, niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter – until a sudden, capsizing love thrusts Anne herself into a newly independent life. publisher

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