cover image SWING LOW: A Life


Miriam Toews, . . Arcade, $23.95 (191pp) ISBN 978-1-55970-587-5

Toews's father, Mel, lived the simple life of a faithful Mennonite community member in mid-20th-century Canada, as a schoolteacher, father and devout churchgoer. In 1952, only a few knew he had been diagnosed with manic depression at age 17, and his struggle to conceal this from the world and maintain a "normal" life met with varying degrees of success until retirement shook his self-image and he began to slide into his most serious depression. This ordinary but poignant biography, written by his daughter (A Boy of Good Breeding), reconstructs Mel's story in his own voice, which, once established, provides a deeply sympathetic imagining of a manic depressive's interior world. From an early age, Toews's father believed that "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." In Toews's version, Mel eventually turns to writing to make sense of his condition, to review his life in the hope of seeing it more clearly.What engages us is a strong and realistic sense of a man who chose to use the little energy he had to construct a safe world for his family, but one in which he felt he could never fully participate. For Toews, by "dragging some of the awful details into the light of day," she recognized that her father "found a way to alleviate his pain, and so have I." (Dec.)