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Narrative Ethics in Miriam Toew's Summer of My Amazing Luck

In an interview with Natasha G. Wiebe, Miriam Toews recalls when Rudy Wiebe’s 1962 novel about violence in a Canadian Mennonite village, Peace Shall Destroy Many, was banned in her church, and laments that this official reaction was “so sad, because the Mennonites have so much to offer” (119-20, emphasis in the original). Despite her rejection of Mennonite theology,[i] Toews recognizes that the Mennonite community has much to teach the outside world.

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Toews repeatedly calls herself a “secular Mennonite” (“Novelist,” Brandt “Complicated,” N. Wiebe 122), a term which, aside from acknowledging the impossibility of escaping her Mennonite ethnicity,[ii] also argues that it is possible to hold on to the positive aspects of Mennonitism by separating its radical Anabaptist[iii] essence from the oppressive institutional church. While the idea of a “Mennonite on the margins” is not new,[iv] Toews’s claiming of this status is important because it signifies a willingness to remain in dialogue with institutional Mennonitism and also posits a particularly Anabaptist way of being secular.

These “marginal Mennonite” texts are examples of secular Anabaptism’s emphasis on sharing one’s thoughts about the world via writing. Literature offers a safe space for secular Mennonites to write about Anabaptist values without being explicitly negative to the point of alienating readers. For instance, the Mennonite communities portrayed in Toews’s novels A Complicated Kindness and Irma Voth are unhealthy places that their protagonists must escape, and this direct critique of the Mennonite community is a necessary one.

But texts such as Toews’s first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck (1996, rev. 2006), are able to critique the community by offering it a narrative vision to aspire to without being unduly judgmental, since they show that Mennonitism echoes many flaws found in broader society (e.g., classism, sexism, and homophobia). Summer’s ethic is relevant to non-Mennonite readers and Mennonite readers alike, though Mennonite readers may have an easier time interpreting the novel because they share Toews’s heritage.[v] This open, welcoming space in literature is the kind of arena that secular and religious Mennonites need in order to keep communication with each other open.

Summer tells the story of a Winnipeg welfare mother, Lucy, and her infant son, Dill, as they try to adjust to life in public housing and as Lucy continues to work through the grief caused by her mother’s murder. The novel meanders along in a straightforward, realist style through seemingly unremarkable scenes including Lucy’s visits to the welfare office, her building’s janitor’s attempts to clean graffiti off a wall, and her building’s rivalry with the welfare mothers from the house across the street. Weeks of constant rain and a brief road trip to the U.S. provide the only bits of narrative excitement.

But as a whole, these scenes combine to offer a powerful Anabaptist-inspired message to readers about the necessity of relating to the poor as persons rather than as mere charity cases. As in all of Toews’s novels, the use of humor throughout Summer helps draw readers into the narrative by making its characters more sympathetic. The book’s humor helps to open readers up so that they are able to empathize with characters who are in most cases from a different socioeconomic milieu. In other words, the novel does not stop at merely describing its characters’ difficult lives; it urges readers to take action against the societal systems which cause these difficulties. Thus the book’s secular Anabaptist ethic comes into play.

When I first read Summer, I kept being struck by how Mennonite it was despite the lack of any mention of Mennonites.[vi] I recognized Toews’s background forcing itself into her writing even though, according to an interview with Hildi Froese Tiessen, Toews made a conscious decision not to write about Mennonites in Summer (60).

The book epitomizes a secular Mennonite text via its ethic of helping the poor and oppressed, which becomes evident when viewing the novel through the lens of narrative ethics. Summer acts as moral instruction for all readers, but especially Mennonite readers, whether they remain in the Church or not. It offers clues to how one may live an ethical life that is inspired by a specific faith tradition without having to be part of an oppressive organized religion. In articulating this vision, the book shows the value of Mennonite literature[vii] as a space for dialogue between religious and secular Mennonites.

Narrative Ethics and Mennonites

As Stanley Hauerwas writes in his manifesto for narrative ethics, “Vision, Stories, and Character”:

Contemporary ethics has paid little attention to character, vision, stories, and metaphors as part of our moral experience.... Metaphors and stories suggest how we should see and describe the world—that is, how we should “look-on” ourselves, others, and the world—in ways that rules and principles taken in themselves do not. (166)

To live an ethical life, it is not enough for an individual or community to be made aware of abstract ethical guidelines, such as “love thy neighbor” or “be nonviolent,” because it is difficult to put these guidelines into practice without concrete examples of how they should be applied in real-life situations. It is therefore necessary to teach ethics via stories that model proper ethical behavior, or, conversely, that model behavior which is to be avoided as unethical.

Mennonites have traditionally engaged in this teaching via the use of texts like the Martyrs Mirror and other more recent real-life accounts of sacrifices for Jesus.[viii] Mennonites are excellent storytellers, and they already emphasize the importance of narratives for the community. Mennonites love to talk about themselves, as can be seen in the disproportionately large size of the North American Mennonite print culture in comparison to the number of Mennonites living here.[ix] The problem is that many traditional Mennonite narratives have offered an oppressive ethic to their hearers, which is why corrective texts such as Summer are necessary.

Hauerwas further explains that narratives are not just important for ethics because they model ethical behavior, but because “they affect how we perceive the world and hence what the moral life is about” (167). Narratives give us a world view to work from, and as a result they do not just shape our ethics, they shape our entire lives. When narratives are shared among a group of people, these narratives shape communities, which in turn shape individuals via the stories they tell, whether for good or ill.[x] Reading others’ stories always affects us; the important thing is to be cognizant of how they affect us, how they teach us, in order to determine how or whether to implement this new knowledge into our lives. Unfortunately, many of the texts previously used by Mennonites to teach ethics have been oppressive, urging a hurtful, joyless, self-sacrificial, and misogynist approach to the world.[xi] Summer acts as a corrective to this trend.[xii]

Mennonites have traditionally emphasized helping the less fortunate, from the Martyrs Mirror story of Dirk Willems rescuing a drowning Anabaptist-catcher (van Braght 741) to the present-day efforts of aid organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service, even though this compassion has not always been present in intra-Mennonite relationships.[xiii]

Summer teaches this ethic of helping the unfortunate both through having its characters live it and by urging readers to work for social change by combating the institutional violence which the characters suffer under. This argument is relevant for all of North American society, but it is especially relevant for Mennonites because it implicitly begins Toews’s critique of the Mennonite community that is made explicit in A Complicated Kindness and Irma Voth. Although Mennonites try to be “in the world but not of it,” Mennonitism is not immune from participation in the broader forms of systemic violence found in “worldly” society. Summer offers guidance as to the kind of steps Mennonites and other readers can take to minimize this oppressive participation more than they have in the past.

One of Summer’s most engaging aspects is the vividness of its characters, which results from the fact that it includes many autobiographical aspects.[xiv] It successfully breaks through the barrier that stigmatizes welfare mothers as Other and portrays them as sympathetic characters instead, because Toews experienced the struggles they face firsthand. She explains to Tiessen that she wrote the book because she wanted to pay witness to the difficulties of being a welfare mother since she “had been one,” and she realized that a novel would bring more attention to this issue than a CBC documentary would;[xv] it would make welfare mothers “more real” (54-55).

Thus Summer was born out of a wish to teach readers about oppression and how to combat it—it is an explicitly moral and political text. This characteristic plays an essential role in the ethic the novel espouses. It writes back to broader society as well as to a religious tradition that has silenced both women and those who do not fit easily into the mold of propriety. It urges the necessity of hearing these stories as a way of acknowledging the humanity of their tellers and as a channel for hearing critiques of the community.

It also shows the importance of sharing our own stories to help others learn from them, not just to listen to others’ stories. Summer is a form of testimony, showing how women, and especially poor women, are oppressed in North American society, but also showing via the women’s cooperation throughout the novel how this oppression may be overcome through collective action. That is why the book’s narrator, Lucy, shares her life with us. She affirms her value as a person by making herself and the other tenants of her public housing building visible through her narrative, teaching us as readers while at the same time learning more about herself.

This parallel learning creates a mutual community between Lucy and readers because we provide the audience that makes it possible for her to construct her narrative. The authority figures in her life—her father, welfare administrators, even librarians—refuse to listen to her, so she is forced to seek an audience elsewhere. Even though she does not know what readers she is writing for, her decision to tell her story is a hopeful act that claims agency, affirming that someone who cares enough about her humanity will read her manuscript. Our willingness to read her narrative is also a liberating act because it is impossible to learn ethics narratively without being open to the possibility that the stories we hear might change us.

The Ethics of Half-a-Life

In its very first chapter Summer acknowledges the importance of narrative as a device for structuring our lives and helping to shape our future actions. Lucy introduces us to her neighbor and fellow welfare mother, Lish, and explains that Lish loves telling the story of her night with a travelling fire-eater who departed before she awoke, stealing her wallet and leaving her pregnant with twins (2). This sounds like a sad story, but Lish tells it repeatedly because she is able to focus on its happy ending—her two youngest daughters. It is a foundational text for her. It reminds Lish that she has value as a mother and as a sexually-attractive person, even though her economic position in society names her as worthless.

It also gives Lish something to hope for, because in her mind there is the possibility that the performer will come back for her. This hope keeps Lish from slipping into despair about her tenuous situation, and via her resultant cheery mood helps her perform the role of an encouraging mother hen to the rest of the tenants in her and Lucy’s building, Half-a-Life. Lish’s hopefulness rubs off on Lucy throughout the novel, giving her the strength to complete her narrative. Lish thus recognizes the necessity of telling stories about ourselves to help us remember who we are and what is important to us.

Similarly, Lucy affirms the importance of narrative by giving readers brief histories of each of her neighbors at Half-a-Life in chapters two and four of Summer before focusing on her own story in the remainder of the book. In doing so, Lucy makes her neighbors visible as well, and acknowledges that her story does not make sense when it is divorced from the stories of those around her. All of the women’s[xvi] narratives are equally important even though we hear Lucy’s in much more detail. Her relation of the other women’s stories also forces readers to see them as human rather than as stereotypes who are on welfare because they are too lazy to get a job. Their heartbreaking backgrounds show that in many cases women are forced to go on welfare as a result of systemic violence or as a result of men abdicating their parental responsibilities.

For instance, Naomi’s husband molests her daughter, which is why she leaves him and moves into public housing, but despite his actions she is unable to get sole custody of her children (22-24). Instead of punishing the actual crime, the justice system, controlled by men, throws her to the margins of society for being a disobedient wife and choosing her children over her husband. Many of the other women at Half-a-Life also suffer at the hands of the legal system, which does nothing to enforce the payment of child support by the women’s former lovers (25, 28). Society punishes the women by forcing them to deal with the “consequences” of their out-of-wedlock sexual pleasure alone, arguing that they should only be able to enjoy their bodies when they are controlled by men within the bonds of marriage.

Summer further illustrates its ethic of concern for the oppressed via Lucy’s description of the hardships present in the lives of Half-a-Life’s residents. These hardships result from society’s attempt to pretend that the women do not exist. Lucy notes that the residents are put into Half-a-Life “because we were poor and had kids” (24). They are put into a ghetto for single mothers so that those more economically fortunate than they are do not have to see them and can pretend that their needs are met.

Lish concurs, explaining that she and her building-mates are denied access to various public places, thus further cutting them off from “respectable” society. She asserts that “women and children” are barred from many businesses by “No Strollers” signs or made to feel unwelcome in them by their staff (78). Implicit in this practice is the stereotype that men earn and control money, therefore women unaccompanied by men are not serious customers, but rather nuisances only interested in browsing and letting their children run wild.

The women recognize that they are undervalued in the North American economic system, as both Terrapin and Lish state that being mothers—a role which is obviously essential to society—is their full-time job (55, 176). But they must stay on welfare because society does not value stay-at-home mothers enough to compensate them in a non-stigmatized way. Capitalism places no concrete value on this work, and thus portrays the women as financial burdens.

The physical and emotional ghettoization forced upon the women stems from a societal fear that somehow the residents’ misfortunes will contaminate others, but, as the novel shows, the women are just like anyone else: decent people who have simply encountered more misfortune than some. They are good neighbors to one another, and they value constructive pastimes such as reading (18, 65) and board games (26). They are not dangerous except in the faulty imagination of mainstream thinking.

Lucy reports how she and her neighbors attempt to combat society’s oppression of them by putting up a façade of toughness in public. They “carr[y them]selves like gangsters, warriors, [they a]re just fine, d[o]n’t need anybody” (12). This pantomime forces society to see them; the women claim their personhood by making themselves visible and therefore refuse to accept their oppression, even if they can only do this by projecting the image which others want to force on them.

However, the language that Lucy uses to explain the mothers’ rough public exteriors shows that there is a price for having to fight for this visibility. The women have to adopt unhealthy, violent, stereotypically masculine roles as “warriors” and “gangsters” in order to survive because it is the only kind of assertiveness that society will respond to. They are unable to be authentic outside of Half-a-Life. Summer calls for readers to help create a more understanding, helpful society that makes it possible for all of its members to be themselves rather than being forced to fake it like the women do.

The women’s tough circumstances are important for readers to see. Toews tells Claire Kirch that “writ[ing] about difficult and tragic situations…. is ‘how I make sense of my world,’ …. ‘Fiction can be more true than truth’” (22). It is necessary to pay witness to life’s hardships in the most effective ways possible, which often includes the use of narrative. While the Mennonite community does a good job of appreciating narrative, it does a poor job of appreciating the power of fiction as a genre with life-changing potential.

Therefore, aside from teaching broader society about the lives of welfare mothers and urging readers to revise their attitudes toward them, Summer also acts as a specific critique of the Mennonite community, calling for it to be more open in its definition of which texts are important and in its definition of who might be able to give wisdom to the community. While many Mennonite writers, including Toews, are no longer theological Mennonites, they still have insights that are necessary for institutional Mennonitism to consider.

Summer’s ethic also argues for the necessity of political activism via its portrayal of the welfare system, society’s begrudging help for the women. Lucy offers numerous examples of how the system is dehumanizing and in need of reform. In her description of the relationships with men which Half-a-Life’s women are forced to conduct covertly in order to retain government support, she shows that Half-a-Life’s residents are marginalized because of their gender via the system’s advocacy of traditional gender roles. The system assumes that having a visible boyfriend means being financially supported by him, and thus causes the women to resort to one-night stands so that their liaisons are not discovered (87). The system insists on stripping women of their sexual agency in exchange for their monthly payments; it denies them humanity by attempting to control all aspects of their lives.

As Lucy observes, these welfare policies are both sexist and heteronormative. She explains that a woman will lose all of her welfare if she is living with a man, no matter what his financial circumstances, but if she is living with a woman who is her lover she will only lose a part of her rent allowance even if her lover is wealthy (86). This example of the welfare system’s blindness to reality shows that it is not interested in the women as persons that it actually wants to help, but that it simply exists as a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Of course Half-a-Life’s residents, who, as its victims, best understand the system’s brokenness, are the ones who have the least amount of political clout to try to change it.

Lucy also explains that welfare recipients are policed as though they are children, being forced to provide death certificates if they claim to have missed an appointment as the result of the death of a loved one (34). Not only do the women have to combat society’s stereotype of them, but they must also combat the system’s stereotype of them as untrustworthy persons. Lucy is stunned when Lish explains to her how much many people hate those who are on welfare. She does not understand it, telling us that if she lived disliking others for no reason she would “have an awful life!” (162). Lucy recognizes that it is necessary to live out an ethic which sees the value in others no matter what their circumstances. Her positive attitude toward life and openness to listening to others’ stories throughout the novel create as an example for readers.

Lucy observes that the dehumanizing nature of the welfare system means that being on the dole “requires complete denial” of how bad one’s life must be to have had it get caught up in such an eviscerating bureaucracy (120). The system helps its recipients survive, but it does so at great emotional cost. It sees the women as case numbers rather than as persons. It is able to do this because of its recipients’ powerlessness, economic and otherwise. The welfare workers can afford to be rude to Lucy because there is nothing she can do about it (35-36, 119). She has the unpleasant choice of accepting their disrespectful behavior or starving. Summer urges readers to take note of this negative example of failing to serve the oppressed and to strive to do the opposite.

Aside from the rudeness the women must face in their regular visits to the welfare office, Summer shows how those in charge of funding the system use it as a political football rather than as a tool for positive social change. The government minister in charge of the province’s welfare program, Bunnie Hutchison, wants to cut welfare mothers’ child tax credit because they are on welfare (others would still get the credit), not considering how these cuts will drastically affect the women’s lives. Lucy notes that the proposed cut of $1500 is over a sixth of her income for an entire year (98-99).

In this particular instance, there is a happy ending for the women because they discover that Bunnie Hutchison is a tax fraud, and they use this information to blackmail her into not making the cuts (117, 141, 213). Despite their breaking the law, Summer depicts the women’s actions in a positive way because their actions are just in that they are undertaken out of a concern for the oppressed;[xvii] the blackmail helps many more people than it hurts, and it is questionable whether even Bunnie Hutchison is actually hurt by it, rather than simply being reminded that she is in office to serve her constituents instead of herself. The women show the importance of working together in community in this episode, which is another one of the novel’s primary ethical emphases.

Lucy acknowledges at the beginning of Summer that when she moves into Half-a-Life she is grateful to belong to a community. Although society stigmatizes being on welfare, being on the dole at least helps to give Lucy an identity, something she has been lacking: “Lish and I were single welfare mothers. I was proud to be something finally, to belong to a group of people that had a name and a purpose” (8). Lucy’s description of her community as having “a purpose” is essential—she realizes that, although society does not recognize motherhood as a “job” but simply takes it for granted, the women must rise above society’s hatred of them to do a good job of raising their children. The women draw inspiration from one another in this task, both emotionally and physically, through helping one another with advice and tasks such as babysitting. When Lucy moves to Half-a-Life, the women model good community behavior for her, and she in turn becomes a useful member in the community.

The sense of community at Half-a-Life is built via mutual aid, shared traditions, and a common ethic of social justice. In this way, it resembles Mennonite community, which is part of how Summer uses its narrative to call for change within Mennonitism as well as the broader world. Lucy writes that the women “stick together” even when they are not the best of friends because they realize that as members of multiple oppressed groups (women and the poor, and in some cases ethnic minorities and the LGBT community) they cannot get by on their own, but together they can be a formidable force (86).

One example of this help is when Lucy allows the other women to use her brand-new stroller as a grocery cart. She understands that objects are made to be used rather than coveted or fetishized, and thus lets it be put to whatever use is the most helpful, even though it gets “beat up” (153). In contrast to the begrudging sharing of wealth that society engages in via the welfare system, the women are happy to share what little they have. One of the striking things about Summer is that its worldview is a positive one despite the harshness of the characters’ lives, and this encourages readers to approach life with hope no matter what their circumstances.

The Half-a-Life community is strengthened by rituals that help build a collective identity. Like an ethnic group, Lucy explains that it even has its own “national dish,” pasta, which the women often eat together (95-96). These meals help strengthen the bonds of the community much like the Christian ritual of communion, but without all of the disturbing sacrificial imagery. The women also hold frequent Scrabble tournaments (26, 212), which show the importance of building camaraderie via leisure-time activities, of the necessity of friendship in community to complement pragmatic exchange.

These various communal activities help to create a collective ethic as the women learn from one another. They have a sense of social justice and concern for the oppressed that mirrors the novel’s message to readers that expresses itself in various ways. These include Betty being bothered by the disproportionate number of African American men who are incarcerated in the United States (51), Mercy’s insistence on reading only “feminist” authors (54), and Lucy’s distress about the unjust economics present in the production of Nike shoes (198-199). The women recognize that their small community is a part of the global community, and as a result refuse to be self-centered despite all of their day-to-day worries. They are often wiser in their view of the world than those who look down on them.

Summer’s Lessons

The women’s awareness of the world is an important one for institutional Mennonitism to note. Books such as Summer of My Amazing Luck can help the institutional Church learn how to better interact with the world that it claims to want to serve. Toews’s novel is an effective witness because it focuses on ethics rather than dogma. The fact that the book offers an ethical vision to readers without using religious language makes it a more effective form of Anabaptist ethics than institutional Mennonite fiction (e.g., that produced by Herald Press[xviii]) or theology because it is accessible to all readers as an instructive text, not just Christians. It claims space for a secular presence within the Anabaptist tradition.

Summer illustrates why literary Mennonite writing is still important for the institutional Mennonite Churches in North America despite its authors’ frequent positions on the margins or completely outside of the Mennonite faith community. The novel shows that secular and religious Anabaptists may work toward common visions of societal justice despite their different perspectives on Jesus. Theological Mennonites might view writing by those they would call “former” Mennonites as devoid of any moral or ethical benefit, but Toews’s novel acts as a prophetic voice for North American society as a whole, not just the Mennonite community, and it shows the Mennonite community how to better share its message of social justice with the world.

Both sides lose something when they ignore the other, but Mennonite literature can be a safe common ground. It can provide ethical texts other than the Bible for both secular and religious Mennonites to dialogue over.

Notes

[1] Toews acknowledges this continuing rejection in her 2000 interview with Hildi Froese Tiessen (57), at 10:05 of her 2005 interview with Terry Gross (“Novelist”), and in her 2008 interview with Natasha G. Wiebe (108, 122).

[1] The question of whether Mennonite ethnicity exists apart from Mennonite theology is a fractious one, but Toews affirms in her interview with Natasha Wiebe that this ethnicity does exist in a similar manner as Jewish ethnicity is separate from Judaism (122). Ervin Beck provides a convincing argument that Mennonites should be considered an ethnic group (36-37).

[1] I use “Anabaptism”/“Anabaptist” here to mean the pre-institutionalized theological and ethical core of the sixteenth century Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation, which included an emphasis on pacifism and the necessity of good deeds to gain salvation. Anabaptism is institutionalized today in Mennonitism, the mix of official church organizations and less formalized Mennonite cultural practices that make up the North American Mennonite community. “Secular Mennonitism” or “secular Anabaptism” is thus a version of Anabaptist ethics that acknowledges the importance of helping the oppressed, but excludes a Christian motivation for doing so.

[1] See, for instance, Jeff Gundy’s essay on “lurkers” or the short-lived mid-1990s zine Mennonot.

[1] This may be one reason why literary critics have ignored Summer.

[1] Hildi Froese Tiessen writes about how this recognition of “the trace” of Mennonitism in recent Mennonite fiction by Mennonite readers is a shared experience (“Homelands” 21-22). Her essay engages many of the theoretical issues surrounding the relationship between Mennonite writers and Mennonite readers, which I try to illuminate here in Summer’s particular case.

There are actually two small references to Mennonites in the novel, but only Mennonites would notice them: one of Lucy’s childhood neighbors has a common Mennonite surname, Sawatsky (173), and Lucy and her mother sometimes play Dutch Blitz together (74). While there is technically nothing exclusively Mennonite about Dutch Blitz, I have never heard of any non-Mennonites playing it, whereas many Mennonites play it avidly, especially at large Mennonite gatherings. Summer is a Mennonite text despite its lack of Mennonite characters, in that its author is a Mennonite. As such, it is important to acknowledge that it will be read differently by Mennonites than by non-Mennonites (my reading of the novel as an Anabaptist text is an example of this difference), though the ethical message for both groups is the same.

[1] By “Mennonite literature” I mean creative writing by secular and religious Mennonites, whether it is about Mennonites or not.

[1] For instance, the common practice of having returning missionaries as guest speakers in church to share about their work in the field, or Elizabeth Hersberger Bauman’s Coals of Fire, a children’s book published by Herald Press that has been in print for over 50 years and combines the retelling of stories from the Martyrs Mirror with stories from twentieth-century Mennonites (mostly missionaries) who were imprisoned or killed for their faith.

[1] Not only are there all of the tomes of Mennonite history published by the Mennonite Church’s official publishing house, Herald Press, but there are also independent Mennonite presses such as Cascadia Publishing House and Good Books adding to the stream of writing, as well as at least four Mennonite academic journals.

[1] Toews herself is explicitly aware of the power stories have to change lives. In her account of her father’s life, Swing Low, Toews has him say that he “learn[s] how to live” by reading the biographies of famous Canadians and trying to apply their examples to his life (8), a theme that is repeated throughout the book ( e.g., 47, 158). This is the very definition of narrative ethics.

[1] Swing Low amply illustrates the results of trying to live out this impossible ethic: constant depression caused by the knowledge that one will never be good enough to be accepted by God or the community. Much of Di Brandt’s writing on Mennonites also addresses this issue.

[1] Toews also recognizes the pedagogical nature of narrative in her interview with Hildi Froese Tiessen. Toews speaks about how she uses her writing as a form of instruction, saying that she wants to convey “what’s important in life… like being compassionate, having a sense of humour, not taking yourself too seriously. I would think of these things in terms of how I would want to raise my kids. A book would sort of be an extension of that” (56). With this acknowledgment from Toews that we may read her work as having real-world implications rather than merely existing on an aesthetic level, it is up to us as readers to determine the message that each of her books tries to send. While all three of the “important” elements that Toews mentions are apparent in Summer, it is “being compassionate” that is the most significant and best shows the influence of Anabaptist thought.

These elements are also apparent in Toews’s other novels. See, for instance, Christoph Wiebe’s examination of the ethics embedded in A Complicated Kindness. I choose to examine these aspects in Summer because of its importance as Toews’s first novel. It introduces common themes that occur throughout her oeuvre. Summer has also been unjustly ignored by critics.

[1] Portrayals of intra-Mennonite strife (many of which are autobiographical) are legion in Mennonite literature. Prominent examples include Di Brandt’s questions i asked my mother, Patrick Friesen’s “pa poems” (37-46), Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, and Toews’s A Complicated Kindness and Irma Voth.

[1] These aspects include Toews’s and Lucy’s status as single mothers (Swing Low 201, Summer 3), Toews’s and Lucy’s mothers’ love of travel (Swing Low 57-58, Summer 175), and Toews’s and Lucy’s fathers’ affectionately calling them their “bombshell blonde” (Swing Low 139, Summer 49). Also, when Toews was writing Summer, her husband was a travelling street performer like the father of Lish’s twins (Kirch 22).

[1] Toews was working for the CBC at the time (Tiessen, “‘A Place’” 54).

[1] Some men also live at Half-a-Life, though the women’s stories receive much of the novel’s attention. The most prominent male character is the house’s caretaker, Sing Dylan, an illegal immigrant from India (206). Like the women, he is a sympathetic character, and his story thus causes readers to question whether current immigration laws are just or not.

[1] Another example of this vigilante justice is when Lucy steals a new stroller for her son from Sears (43). The novel argues that society should provide mothers with the essentials for raising their children, and because it does not, Lucy is justified in taking the stroller.

[1] For instance, Kirsten L. Klassen’s Katelyn’s Affection, which reads as propaganda rather than as art. While such books have similar ethical emphases as Summer, their explicit Mennonitism limits their potential audience, whereas anyone interested in literature could find Toews’s work appealing. Similarly, because of the Anabaptist tone that is not found elsewhere, Summer may be appealing to Mennonites who do not read much secular fiction.

Works Cited

Bauman, Elizabeth Hershberger. Coals of Fire. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954. Print.

Beck, Ervin. MennoFolk: Mennonite & Amish Folk Traditions. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004. Print.

Brandt, Di. “A Complicated Kind of Author.” Herizons Summer 2005: n. pag. Herizons.ca. Web. 22 February 2012.

__________. questions i asked my mother. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1987. Print.

Friesen, Patrick. Blasphemer’s Wheel: Selected and New Poems. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1994. Print.

Gundy, Jeff. “In Praise of the Lurkers (Who Come Out to Speak).” Migrant Muses: Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S. Ed. John D. Roth and Ervin Beck. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1998. 23-30. Print.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Vision, Stories, and Character.” The Hauerwas Reader. Ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 165-70. Print.

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About the Author

Daniel Cruz

Daniel Shank Cruz holds a post- doctoral fellowship in English at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School and from Goshen College in 2002, with a B.A. in Bible, Religion and Philosophy. He earned master’s (2006) and doctoral (2011) degrees in English from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. He has published essays on Don DeLillo and Julia Alvarez and has contributed an essay on Baraka’s Dutchman for an MLA teaching anthology. As a student at Goshen College, he edited How Julia Kasdorf Changed My Life (Pinchpenny Press 2001), a collection of student essays from Mennonite Literature class. A native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, he claims descent from two of the earliest Mennonite settlers there, Hans Herr and Martin Kendig. For two years he worked with Mennonite Voluntary Service in New York City.