It seems only fitting that Miriam Toews would drive more than two hours down I-29 from her home in Winnipeg to Grand Forks, N.Dak., to talk up her fourth novel.
Aside from the fact that she “loves being on the road more than anything” (she and her three children with husband Neal Rempel often accompanied him on “these long, elaborate, eventful road trips” as he traveled around North America as a street performer in the '90s), The Flying Troutmans—hot off the presses in Canada, scheduled for release in the U.S. by Counterpoint—is a tale of the adventures and misadventures of 28-year-old Hattie on the drive from Canada to California with her institutionalized sister's children to find their missing father.
“I'd always wanted to write a road story,” she says. “I enjoy road stories, the reading and the pacing of them, in books and in film, the 'how are we going to survive?' kinds of challenges.” And in a case of life imitating art, she was delayed at the U.S. border because of an unresolved 15-year-old speeding ticket.
But The Flying Troutmans is so much more than a lighthearted romp through America. It's also the story of a family ripped apart by mental illness. Hattie, who, years earlier, had fled “from the darkness of her crazy family” to Paris, reluctantly returns to Manitoba to take custody of Thebes, 11, and Logan, 15, after their suicidal mother is sent away. Nursing her own emotional wounds after having been unceremoniously dumped by her commitment-shy boyfriend, and uninterested in taking responsibility for two traumatized children, Hattie's plan is to track down the children's estranged father, last seen in a South Dakota art gallery.
The Flying Troutmans is a potent mixture of humor and pathos as the trio encounters oddball characters galore, stays at dodgy motels, deals with van trouble and even attends a rodeo, while Hattie mulls over her failed relationship and the destructive impact of her sister's mental illness upon all of their lives.
Toews, 44, is no stranger to mental illness. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, a small, conservative Mennonite town (she left after high school, first for Montreal, and then to Europe, before returning to Canada to study film and journalism) with a father who was bipolar and eventually a suicide. She wrote a biographical memoir in her father's voice, Swing Low: A Life (Vintage Canada, 2000), to “get to know him a little better and to hopefully understand how this came about.” “Even though he was there physically, he was not present in so many ways,” Toews recalls, which might explain the recurring theme of lost parents in her novels, all originally published in Canada and later released in the U.S. by Counterpoint.
Toews's debut novel, The Summer of My Amazing Luck (Turnstone, 1996; Counterpoint, 2006), deals with a teenage single mother who moves to a low-income housing project after her mother's death. In A Boy of Good Breeding (Vintage Canada, 1998; Counterpoint, 2006), a single mother returns to her hometown, which is presided over by a mayor who's convinced that Canada's prime minister is the father he's never known. Toews's prize-winning third novel, A Complicated Kindness (Knopf Canada, 2004; Counterpoint, 2004), tells the story of a teenage girl living in a fundamentalist religious community whose world is shattered when her mother goes missing.
“It's one of those subjects I'll probably always circle around in my writing,” Toews says. “I want readers to feel compassion for the loneliness of these fractured families, these human beings who suffer difficult circumstances. There's a lot of love and concern in spite of the sadness and confusion.”
Easygoing, exuding contentment in person, Toews says she “likes” to write about difficult and tragic situations. “It's how I make sense of my world,” she muses. “Fiction can be more true than truth.”