What Love Looks Like in the Dark: A Thoughtful Analysis of Miriam Toews’ book, A Complicated Kindness
Welcome to the dark side where love, though it twists and gnarls in the shadows like a sun-thirsty vine, searching and stretching for light, still thrives.
The novel A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews is a story in which each page is colored with shadows of death as the main character catalogues the carnage of broken relationships. In the setting of a religious Mennonite town, all inhabitants are expected to fall in line with accepted church practices and beliefs or else be shunned, becoming a ghost in their own town and among their own families. A surface glance at the situation might see the church as domineering, Trudie as selfishly abandoning her family, or Ray as loveless in his leaving Nomi behind, but Toews looks past this first impression and sees something more complicated: kindness.
The cost of non-conformity may be high, but the price of love in this complex situation may be even higher. The difficulty each must face is the church’s imposition of religious rules on all town residents, which puts everyone to a decision about who is in and who is out. This makes it difficult for those caught on one side to love those on another. As we explore the characters, we discover in their behavior how they endeavored to love each other in a complicated situation. Research into sociology, the psychology of relationships, and glimpses into Mennonite history will reveal that, in the wake of all these broken relationships, there is more than the simplicity of selfishness or the misfortune of loss that is happening. Instead we will see a complex situation and the love which motivated these acts. We discover in Toews’ book that sometimes loving someone means staying, sometimes it means leaving, and other times, it means letting go, even of those we care deeply about.
When Love Looks Like Staying
Relationships are messy. What’s more, the messiness is unavoidable because relationships are connections between people, and people are complicated. They are also ever-changing. When people change or circumstances become difficult, one is always put to a decision of whether the relationship is worth keeping. In the novel, we see Trudie and Hans exert effort to stay in relationships despite difficulty.
Trudie “lived in a town where every single person knew who she was and where she came from and sometimes that made her crazy but most of the time she liked that because it made her feel like she was a part of something” (89). Toews concisely summed up both the oppressive feeling of being part of a community wherein conformity is required, and the benefits of maintaining that connection despite its uncomfortable aspects.
Too often, especially in an individualistic society like North America, we are quick to abandon relationships when discomfort arrives, especially when it comes in the form of compromise or sacrifice of one’s autonomy. There is much benefit to staying, though, as “[d]ifficult relationships tend to provide us with more teaching moments than do routine relationships. The trouble difficult relationships cause in our lives creates a sharp focus on the connection and what went wrong. This is a good thing. … On a deeper level, you will know yourself and others in a clear and helpful way.” (Townshend, 67) By staying, we make use of a unique opportunity to grow in character or even in awareness of who we are. What’s more, there is great benefit to being “a part of something” rather than isolated from the community.
When a member would gravitate away from the fold, Uncle Hans worked on behalf of the community to pull them back in. This confrontation, though uncomfortable and unpleasant, was done because “there were eternal issues at stake. And when discipline is properly applied, the one under it needs the humility to come home” (45). Hans saw Trudie’s girls — and perhaps Trudie herself — as losing interest in the faith and attempted to reel them back through jobs at the Rest Haven and then the church library (102). These efforts to keep community members in relationship with the church and with God were, at least in part, an act of protection and love for the souls of those they knew. When these did not work to reign in divergent behaviors, Hans began a series of persuasive home visits.
Especially in the context of an Old Colony Mennonite community, “[t]he highest goal is the goal of salvation, which is understood as acceptance by God as faithful people rather than as faithful individuals. … The salvation of the Old Colony affects all of its members; therefore, it is important that there be no deviants to spoil the chances of the whole group.” (Old Colony Mennonites, 35) Communities like these “have often pursued unity by shunning particularity … and by uniting around common practices”. It is debatable whether the approach of control and then shunning was the most effective way to demonstrate caring, however it remains an example of love that the church would risk such confrontations for the good of the community and of the straying members.
When Love Looks Like Leaving
Sometimes loving someone necessitates saying goodbye. Often this is talked about in the “cult of self-affirmation” terms of self-preservation and “being true to [one’s] self and maintaining control over [one’s] life. Anyone or anything that attempts to limit [that] is immediately categorized as “toxic” and “judgmental” and is thus pushed to the side.” (You’re Not Enough,36) In this case, leaving is treated as an act of love for one’s self. This is not the sense in which we mean leaving as an act of love. In Toews’ book the act of leaving is quite the opposite, as seen in Trudie and Ray’s cases.
Trudie’s exodus from her town and family, while mysterious, is spoken of as a gesture of mercy toward Ray. “I’m pretty sure she left town for his sake. It would have killed him to choose between her or the church”(194). While leaving her husband and daughter behind can look from one perspective like abandonment, it can also look, from another perspective, like the kinder choice. Had Trudie stayed, Ray would have had to either remain loyal to his church and shun his own wife, or would have had to reject his church in order to remain in relationship with his wife. It was an impossible decision, and one she did not leave him to make. To Nomi, it was an act of love that her mother would spare Ray “the pain of having to choose between the church or her, knowing it would kill him” (244). It was the only way Nomi could stand to think of it: as an act of love and mercy.
Later, when Ray also left, Nomi saw that as an act of love as well. Deep inside, Nomi “realized that [her] personal yearning to be in New York City .. [was] a painful, serious, all-consuming kind of thing…” (135). Despite this all-consuming desire, Nomi was unable to pick up and leave as Tash and Trudie had. Ray knew this about his daughter, and did the only thing he could in that circumstance: he left. Nomi saw this as “comforting in a fragile, loss-filled kind of way, to know that Ray had decided to keep the love alive in his imagination, and leave” (241). Again, Nomi saw it only as love and mercy even if it came in the painful form of leaving.
There are times when withdrawing from a relationship is the only way to preserve the people in it. “That is when you must draw boundaries — for your interests, for the sake of the relationship, and for helping the other person as well.” (Townshend, 36) Such situations include codependent relationships for example, where removal of the one depended on can foster growth and independence in the dependent one. In the Bible, John writes of sacrificial love in this way: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NIV).
In the case of the Nickels, Trudie sacrificed her presence in the family for the sake of Ray’s freedom, and Ray removed himself from Nomi’s life to keep from being a barrier between her and her freedom. Both withdrawals, while looking like abandonment, were actually acts of sacrificial love.
When Love Looks Like Letting Go
Leaving for the sake of love is one thing; the response of those left behind however, is quite another. Trudie and Nomi both demonstrated love by caring enough to let go of those who had left, even if it resulted in a broken relationship for a time. For each of them, it was a process of coming to the point of willingness to let go, but each did eventually accomplish it and demonstrated love by allowing another to leave.
We heard Trudie’s lamenting of loss when Nomi overheard her mom; “I think I’m losing Tash, she said, and began to cry”(110). We see evidence of Trudie’s ability to let Tash go in her comment to Nomi “about the Mennonites in Russia fleeing in the middle of the night… All they needed, she said, was for people to tolerate their unique apartness”(148). We also see it in her response to Tash’s outcry, “I think I’ll go crazy. I can’t stand it. … It’s not right and it’s killing me.” to which Trudie’s response was, “I know honey, I know it is. And then she began to cry also”(146). The most striking evidence of Trudie letting her own daughter go is when she helped bring Tash’s bags to the door where Ian waited. Trudie hugged Ian and bid them both farewell even while Ray remained in his bedroom, unwilling to say goodbye (148).
Nomi struggled with the process of letting go throughout the story, only able by the final chapters to accomplish it. After Tash left, she “phoned a couple of times… and then stopped calling altogether. … My dad and I used to have heart attacks when the phone rang but not quite as much any more. We’ve become a little sluggish. The phone hardly ever rings” (70,71). Their becoming used to her absence indicated a certain amount of acceptance had taken place.
Regarding Ray’s exit, Nomi found comfort in his final parting words. “He left me a verse from Isaiah, the prophet of redemption: For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace.”(239). His reminder to dust her feet when she did leave indicated his hope for her future freedom as well. To Nomi, this “was comforting… to know that Ray had decided to keep the love alive in his imagination, and leave”(241). Nomi concluded that “love.. outlasts grief. It does. Love is everything. It is the greatest of these. And I think that we all use whatever is in our power, whatever is within our reach, to attempt to keep alive the love we’ve felt” (244). This, it seems, is possible even in the complicated conditions of broken relationships, if they’re broken for love or there is love despite the brokenness.
Restoration and unity in relationships is not always possible. Sometimes life, circumstances, and other people complicate things and put us to hard decisions about how to best love each other. Sometimes love means letting someone go. In that case, “if the relationship is truly over, you must move on. Sometimes you move on to a life without romance or that particular friendship or family connection. Sometimes you move towards another new relationship…One way or another, moving on is the way to go.” (Townshend, 90) Letting go is simply acceptance of things beyond our control, and a willingness to allow people to exist outside of our control also. While this can be done in a resentful or bitter way, in the case of Nomi and Trudie, the letting go is done as an act of loving acceptance of people and things outside of their control. When speaking of letting go, author John Danvers describes it as “the let-ting-go of expectations, sitting without expectation or attachment to a goal.” “As Trudie put it, it is loving others enough “to tolerate their unique apartness” (148). In this way, the Nickels loved each other well.
Love is a complicated kindness, especially when the circumstances themselves are complex. Even a single act, done in love, can look like hatred depending on the point of view one has. In Toews’ novel, we discover even in the dark town that stinks like death and is empty of Nomi’s family, love is apparent even in such desperate acts as desertion. In particular, we learn that sometimes loving someone means staying, sometimes it means leaving, and other times, it means letting go, even of those we care deeply about.
Trudie understands Tash’s need for apartness and tolerates it, and Nomi understands her mom and dad’s leaving as acts of love to enable those left behind to choose freedom. Their acts of love may have been sacrificial, but perhaps the greater act of love is Nomi’s acceptance of it as love. Rather than becoming embittered, perhaps salivating at the thought of visiting pain back on them, she dreams of being reunited, or at least, of their all loving each other enough that it could be possible. “Life being what it is, one dreams not of revenge. One just dreams”(244). This act of letting go — of people, of life together, and even of expectations — is perhaps one of the most difficult and self-sacrificing acts of love.
Danvers, John. Agents of Uncertainty: Mysticism, Skepticism, Buddhism, Art and Poetry. Brill, Rodopi, 2012.
Nugent, John C. Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity After John Howard Yoder. Abilene Christian University Press, 2010.
Redekop, Calvin Wall. The Old Colony Mennonites: Dilemmas of Ethnic Minority Life. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press,1969.
Stucky, Allie Beth. You’re Not Enough And That’s Okay. USA, Sentinel, 2020.
Toews, Miriam. A Complicated Kindness. Toronto, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Townshend, Dr. John. Beyond Boundaries. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2011.