Reviewed by Danielle Marshall
Miriam Toews, winner of Canada's 2004 Governor General's Award for A Complicated Kindness, has just released her latest novel, The Flying Troutmans. It is the story of Hattie, a young woman who returns from Paris to Winnipeg to take care of her niece and nephew after her sister Min is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Reminiscent of the movie Little Miss Sunshine, the novel evolves into a road-trip tale, as Hattie decides to take the children on a quest to track down their long-lost father and finds herself, playing guardian and in way over her head.
Days after being dumped by her boyfriend Marc in Paris ("he was heading off to an ashram"), Hattie receives a call in the middle of the night from her niece, Thebes, asking for help. Toews begins Hattie's narration of the story in the opening sentence: "Yeah, so things have fallen apart." That sets the tone for the entire book, which could have also been called A Complicated Kindness, as that perfectly describes the compassion that Hattie shows Min and her children, despite the very complex relationship with her sister.
My birth triggered a seismic shift in my sister's life. The day I was born she put her dress on backwards and ran away towards a brighter future, or possibly towards a brighter past....Our family photo albums are filled, halfway, with shots of Min laughing and smiling and enjoying life. And then, suddenly, I'm in the picture and Min's joy evaporates. I've spent hours staring at those photos trying to understand my sister. Even in the ones in which I don't appear it's easy to see by Min's expression that I am just beyond the lens, somewhere nearby.
Even the death of Min and Hattie's father, a drowning in Cancun while trying to save a struggling Min, is fraught with complex emotion and painful memories between the sisters.
I have a feeling that Min was pushing me down, under water. I think that I remember her hand on my head, or on my shoulder, but maybe I'm wrong.
The kids, Thebes and Logan, are both extraordinary. Thebes, a sweet, yet preternaturally mature child at age 11-going-on-30, looks like a purple-haired, dirty street kid. Thebes's 15-year-old emo brother, Logan, uses his hoodie and headphones to block out the slings and arrows of the world. Not knowing what else to do, Hattie loads the kids, a cooler, and a pile of CDs into their van and, with little more than a rumor as their clue, they set out to find the children's father, Cherkis.
In the end, the traveling matters more than the destination. On their ragtag journey down to North Dakota and beyond, the Troutmans stay at sketchy motels and meet helpful travelers, all as Hattie tries to ignore the threatening noises coming from under the hood of their van. Thebes, a constant talker, spends her time making huge novelty checks with art and craft supplies in the back, and won't wash, no matter how wild and matted her purple hair gets. Logan carves phrases like "Fear Yourself" into the dashboard, and repeatedly disappears in the middle of the night to play basketball; he's in love, he says, with New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon. Meanwhile, Min can't be reached at the hospital and Hattie is left to figure out how to parent the kids alone. Hattie tries to counsel Logan late one night in a motel bathroom:
I love you, I said, and Thebes loves you, and so does Min. Like crazy. You know that, right? I thought about saying something like we've got to stick together, through good times and bad, blood is thicker than water, something, anything to convince him that he wasn't alone in the world, but I knew he wouldn't buy it.
Later Logan reveals how he and Thebes really feel:
Okay, yeah, he said. But the thing is, and don't, like, don't think I'm, you know, mad at you or anything, or hurt, or whatever, but the thing is, you don't... like, you don't want us, right? He looked at me and smiled. A genuine, beautiful smile that I think was meant to absolve me of any guilt but instead made me want to kill myself.
The trip feels like an escape, but the emotional journey is urgently necessary, a chance for an accidental family to try and accept, understand, or at least find their way through overwhelming times. With interwoven memories and scenes from the past, we learn much more about them all: why Min got so depressed and sick, why Cherkis left them, why Hattie went to Paris, and what made Thebes and Logan who they are.
Described as "a brilliantly emulsified mix of repression and humor, punctuated by bursts of real emotion," by Quill and Quire, Canada's magazine of book news and reviews, Toews has indeed created some of the most charming characters in literature: Hattie, Logan, and Thebes are bewildered, hopeful, angry, and most of all, totally alive. Full of funny details and spot-on dialogue, The Flying Troutmans is an outstanding and heartwarming novel.
Books mentioned in this post