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Steinbach, Man., still largely shuns the author whose stories of Mennonite life scandalized the devout. Now, a movie based on her novel Women Talking is a Best Picture nominee. The Globe visited the town to see what people are talking about

East of Winnipeg, a billboard on the Trans Canada Highway marks the turnoff to Steinbach, Man., hometown of author Miriam Toews. Photography in Steinbach by Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Miriam Toews’s words cast a long shadow over Steinbach, even 20 years on.

“That’s the thing about this town – there’s no room for in between,” she wrote in A Complicated Kindness of the Manitoba city she grew up in. “You’re in or you’re out. You’re good or you’re bad. Actually, very good or very bad. Or very good at being very bad without being detected.”

The novel, published 20 years ago, explored the author’s Mennonite roots. It shot Ms. Toews to literary fame but in Steinbach, it seemed to forever put her among the bad. Possibly even the very bad.

Ms. Toews is descended from Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite pioneers who founded Manitoba’s third-largest city. Today, some two-thirds of its population of 18,000 remain ethnically or religiously Mennonite.

Ms. Toews is really testing the perception of Mennonites as a people “in the world but not of the world.” Brad Pitt adores her writing. So does Frances McDormand. Star Wars director J.J. Abrams called Women Talking “profoundly powerful, stirring and moving.” Her recent profile in The New Yorker topped 20 pages.

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Women Talking, the film made of her 2018 novel of the same name, is up for two Oscars, including Best Picture, at Sunday’s Academy Awards. “I’m not wearing a dress – I don’t think I’ll ever wear one again,” she said. “I just can’t do it.” Fellow Mennonite Jill Sawatzky, founder of the Winnipeg-based brand Tony Chestnut, designed a silky and elegant “slouchy suit” instead.

“Oh man – this is all so strange, and new,” said Ms. Toews, cackling uproariously at being asked about her clothes in an interview. Her voice is as alive, arch and curious over the phone as it is on the page.

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Ms. Toews, shown at her Toronto home, is waiting to see how the movie based on her book Women Talking fares at the Oscars.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Told that her old home in Steinbach remains intact, Ms. Toews, who now lives in Toronto, quipped that she is just glad to hear the window’s been fixed. Kindness opens with a description of “that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve” – and its once-shattered window. It is not hard to imagine the old Toews residence one day becoming a museum, akin to the Margaret Laurence Home in Neepawa, Man. The current owner, a young francophone originally from neighbouring St-Pierre-Jolys, says he sometimes sees fans of hers huddling on the sidewalk, peering into his picture window.

Then again, this is Steinbach. Ms. Toews once described the city as “a kind of no-frills bunker in which to live austerely, shun wrongdoers and kill some time, and joy, before The Rapture.” Memories here apparently run long. Even after all the film and literary awards, and global acclaim, Ms. Toews’s hometown still refuses to recognize or honour its famous daughter. “If she had played even five minutes in the NHL, there would be a sign on the edge of town saying, ‘Welcome to Steinbach, home of Miriam Toews,’” local author and teacher Andrew Unger laments. “There is a reluctance here to accept her back in the fold.”

On the eve of the Academy Awards, The Globe and Mail set out for southern Manitoba, with a simple question: Is Steinbach ready to let bygones be bygones?

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Ms. Toews grew up in this white-brick house on Brandt Avenue, whose current owner says he sometimes sees fans who come to sightsee.

The Keystone Cinema in Steinbach lists Women Talking among its current attractions. The film – directed by Sarah Polley, at far right with some of the cast on set – centres on Mennonite women deciding what to do about sexual abuse by the men in their colony. Set photo by Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC

It was a toe-curling minus 25 on arrival, late last month. Fields of snow created a world so hushed and horizontal and desolate that a ruby-red billboard welcoming drivers to Steinbach rose from the snow as jarringly as an exclamation point.

“Every single day I miss the skies – those blue, blue, blue skies,” said Ms. Toews. “I miss crunching along on the snow. I miss the quiet, and the bite of the cold – like needles in your face.”

Ms. Toews is constantly returning to Steinbach in her imagination. “That’s where I started, where I grew up, where my identity was formed. I think of myself roaming the streets in the dark, wondering who I was, and where I was, and what was going on around me, she said. “Some of the best times of my life were there. But I was also despairing over it. I knew I needed to escape. I needed to get out.”

The author, who was excommunicated from the family church in her 20s, for birthing a pair of babies out of wedlock, admits she was naïve about the intensity of the outrage that Kindness, which was published when she was 40, would generate. Her wise, elder sister was not. “You’re gonna need to prepare yourself,” Marjorie told Miriam. “You need to make clear that this is not an indictment of Mennonite people or the Mennonite faith but of fundamentalism, and its culture of control.”

The distinction was perhaps too subtle for some. Al Reimer, a literary critic also raised in Steinbach, wrote that Kindness “raised hackles,” among local Mennonites, who saw it as “a vicious attack against the town and the very principles of Mennonite faith and practice.” In the months following the novel’s 2004 publication, a heated back and forth played out in the letters and opinion page of The Carillon, Steinbach’s weekly paper.

Columnist Abe Warkentin accused Ms. Toews of catapulting herself to fame by “eviscerating” Steinbach with a “deliberate, sacrilegious” and “warped” misrepresentation of her hometown. “Her main character refers to it as S@#tville. The world applauds. She bows. Reviewers chortle gleefully at the stereotype they love to perpetuate.”

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'I think of myself roaming the streets in the dark, wondering who I was, and where I was, and what was going on around me,' Ms. Toews says of Steinbach.

Some came to the defence of Ms. Toews, though all but one of her supporters were former Steinbachers who, like her, had long since left the city. Even The Carillon seemed to avoid Ms. Toews. Her first interview of any substance with her hometown paper didn’t appear until 2018.

Mr. Unger, who reads The New Yorker profile aloud to his Grade 11 students – it takes two full periods – says there are two main critiques of Ms. Toews in Steinbach: “That she is airing our dirty laundry, and that her writing is all lies.” Those things can’t both be true, Mr. Unger laughs. “She can be lying or telling our truths. But not both.”

History has a way of repeating itself, especially the quarrels. In 1962, a remarkably similar scandal erupted with the publication of Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many – the first prominent Canadian Mennonite novel. After the book came out, Mr. Wiebe was denounced as a liar, a traitor, an atheist, and fired from his job as editor of a Winnipeg-based Mennonite newspaper.

The novel’s title, a borrowed verse from the Book of Daniel, captures its conceit: that pacifism, a core tenet of the Mennonite faith, has also sown profound violence, conflict and pain. “I rarely thought of pacifism as meaning that you didn’t fight,” Steinbach-raised poet Patrick Friesen once said. “Pacifism meant that you didn’t argue or confront each other. So, you found all kinds of other subtle ways of getting around that. And I think that’s actually where a lot of Mennonites learned how to write.”

And write they did. The publication of Peace triggered an explosion of ink from prairie anabaptists: David Bergen, Di Brandt, Sandra Birdsell, Armin Wiebe. In time, the phenomenon came to be known as “Manitoba’s Mennonite miracle.”

Ms. Toews has also explored a pacifism gone awry: ”Where does the violence go, if not directly back into our blood and bones?” she wrote in All My Puny Sorrows, in the wake of her beloved sister’s death at 51. Marj’s suicide followed their father Mel’s by 12 years. Ms. Toews has drawn a line between Mennonites’ inclination to sorrow and guilt, and their early deaths. Sorrows and Swing Low – a memoir she wrote in Mel’s voice – wrestle with these twin, defining tragedies. They walk a tightrope between joy and unbearable pain. Humour is neither a shield, nor a distraction, Ms. Toews explains. “Humour is how we go on. And how we survive.”

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None of Ms. Toews's books are in stock at Steinbach's Mennonite Central Committee bookstore.

To this day, Steinbach’s Mennonite Central Committee bookstore on Main Street refuses to stock any of these books. But a hardcover copy of Kindness could be had at the thrift store it operates for $1.00. “Hey, at least it wasn’t tossed in the garbage,” quipped Ms. Toews.

The joking belies a profound pain: “I don’t think a lot of people know just how much Mennonites’ opinion matters to me,” she said. Her voice kept catching, her words spilling out in a kind of agonized staccato: “This is my community. It has been brutal. So painful. People said they hated me. That word – hate – is so startling. It’s a gut punch.”

Some liken the treatment to a modern shunning. The Mennonite tool of church control, perceived as non-violent, faded from formal use by the 1970s. Researchers have found that shunning trips the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain. It triggers feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, depression and suicidal behaviours in victims.

Ms. Toews says she’d rather be whipped: “Shunning is a cruel, barbaric punishment – it sends shivers down my spine. It cuts individuals off from their family and community, and designates them as unworthy of human contact. It happens all the time in different ways, and it’s destructive and sad and ridiculous and hateful.”

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Steinbachers dine out at Main Bread & Butter Co. downtown. About two-thirds of Steinbach's 18,000 inhabitants are ethnically or religiously Mennonite.

Steinbach began in 1874 as a faith-based haven. For generations, Mennonites drifted across eastern Europe, searching for a place where they could live and worship as they pleased. Ottawa set aside the township, 60 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, for their exclusive use, forcing Anishinaabe residents onto reserves at Brokenhead and Roseau River.

Curiously, the parcels of land carved out for Mennonites were also labelled “reserves” – an indication, perhaps, of how federal authorities viewed the new arrivals, and their peculiar faith.

The next major wave of Mennonite émigrés arrived from Russia starting in the 1920s. They were fleeing persecution under Bolshevik rule, then Stalin’s excesses.

By then, Mennonite farmers had turned the loamy, licorice-black soil of the surrounding Red River Valley into gold. It was an early harbinger of a work ethic and business acumen that Manitobans would come to associate with the community. Mennonite-run businesses such as Palliser Furniture, Buhler Industries, Triple E Recreational Vehicles and Loewen Windows – founded by Ms. Toews’s maternal grandfather, Cornelius Toews Loewen – remain some of Manitoba’s largest and most prosperous.

To this day, the southern portion of the province remains a patchwork of Mennonite towns interlaced with francophone communities. Neither was taught much about the other, though their parents and grandparents tell similar stories of hiding their French and German books from visiting inspectors – there to ensure their schools were graduating loyal, English-speaking British subjects. Both communities had to fight valiantly to keep their culture, language and religion alive against an ocean of English, often hostile governments, and wider secular society. Theirs are stories of a more gradual assimilation.

Plautdietsch, or Low German, has faded from daily use, though 10 per cent of Steinbach homes are still German-speaking. With more than two dozen churches, faith clearly remains central to community life.

The city’s rock-ribbed faith has led it to make headlines, every few years, for divisive debates – over the sale of alcohol, Sunday shopping and gay rights, to name a few – that can feel fossilized or bewildering to much of urban Canada. Getting Steinbachers on the record on these topics can be arduous work. Locals are fearful of offending the church, their neighbours and business leaders, they explain.

“That is the tyranny – the climate of fear, of punishment, that has been created,” said Ms. Toews. “The reverberations of that are endless. That culture of control and of shaming – it’s in our DNA, like it exists on a cellular level.”

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Women Talking's drama is based on real cases of sexual abuse at a secluded Mennonite colony in the 2000s. Its cast includes (from left) Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, Liv McNeil, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Kate Hallett, Rooney Mara and Judith Ivey.Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC

There is no better way to stump a Steinbacher than by asking what defines a Mennonite today.

“Humbleness ... and living a simple life,” said Brenda Penner, Ms. Toews’s Sunday school teacher, after a lengthy pause.

“Generosity,” Kennert Giesbrecht, editor of Die Mennonitische Post, one of North America’s last German-language newspapers, finally said. “And self-sufficiency.”

To comedian Matt Falk, who was raised in nearby Niverville, Man., “it’s like being Catholic with less dancing and more guilt.”

In Kindness, Ms. Toews took aim at what she saw as a Mennonite tendency to be a little dour, and literal-minded: “Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ‘n’ roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over.”

“None of that is controversial anymore,” says Mr. Unger, the high school English teacher. “Well, except maybe having sex for fun. That’s probably still frowned upon.”

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A Mennonite farmer rides to Elmira, Ont., in 1980. Elmira and St. Jacobs are home to the largest Old Order Mennonite population in Canada.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

Mennonites – who are often mistaken for Mormons, Hutterites, the Amish – are hardly monolithic. A horizontal leadership structure has led to seemingly endless schisms within the faith.

These days, a Mennonite can be anything from secular, to ultra-progressive, to conservative, to Old Order – those who eschew rubber tires in favour of steel, because it makes it harder to reach the city.

Globally, there are more than two million Mennonites today. Most of that growth is occurring in colonies set among South America’s steaming palm and jacaranda forests, where the population has doubled in the last decade, says Mr. Giesbrecht. Both he and his wife were raised in Paraguayan colonies and moved to Steinbach as adults.

The colonies, particularly those in Bolivia – where Women Talking is set – are the most conservative and farthest removed from mainstream society. Southern Manitoba’s Mennonite churches have meanwhile taken on an evangelical bent. They were heavily influenced by massive, tent-revival meetings held in the region in the 1950s, which injected the local faith with beliefs in individual salvation, lakes of fire, and a tendency to social conservativism.

“We had such clear lines – what was right, and what was wrong,” Ms. Penner explains. “It was almost legalistic. When someone stepped even an inch over, often we couldn’t find the grace to forgive.”

She says Ms. Toews has led some in the community to re-examine past attitudes, particularly toward those who have been cast out: “She’s been a good voice for us. Maybe she’s portrayed our community in a less-than-positive way. But all of us know that went on, and that some of our behaviours from the past needed to be exposed. Miriam understands – too well – the pain that behaviour can cause. She brought light to it and helped it to not be such a dark secret.”

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Street signs in Steinbach in 2021. A new town policy might allow for a street name honouring Ms. Toews.

Ms. Penner says she would love to see Steinbach recognize her former student, who she fondly recalls as being wickedly funny, engaging and full of life.

That day could finally be in sight. Late last year, city council enacted a policy allowing for honorary street names to recognize prominent Steinbachers. Mr. Unger and a group of local luminaries immediately filed an eight-page proposal making the case for a Miriam Toews Avenue.

Jordan Ross, a reporter with The Carillon, figures it has a decent chance of passing, largely because it would be “less awkward” for council than turning it down, and having to answer questions about why they denied it.

Other moves to honour her are afoot. A little over a year ago, Canada’s last dry city got its first microbrewery: the Public Brewhouse and Gallery. It is sandwiched on Main Street between a church and Fairway Ford, founded in 1912 by J.R. Friesen – he was excommunicated for doing it.

The Public’s owners dream of painting a mural of Ms. Toews’s likeness on the side of a building opposite their patio; but they require the approval of the building’s owner and current tenant.

“Oh man – I would have been the first to deface it when I was young,” laughed Ms. Toews. She was “deeply, deeply moved,” by the idea, she added, but would not promise to refrain from defiling her mug if it goes ahead. She suggests Steinbach consider naming the “nuisance grounds” – the dump – for her instead.

The owners of the Public Brewhouse and Gallery are considering a mural of Ms. Toews overlooking their patio. Inside, local journalist Jordan Ross has a drink.
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Jonathan Dyck, Josiah Neufeld and Sarah Ens are part of a new generation of Manitoba writers who acknowledge their debt to Ms. Toews. A Complicated Kindness 'was a revelation, Ms. Ens says. 'It changed what I thought was possible.'

On a snowy Friday in February, a group of young Mennonite writers gathered in Winnipeg to talk Toews over beers. You might describe them as the next iteration of Manitoba’s Mennonite Miracle – the literary explosion spurred in this case by Ms. Toews, and the publication of Kindness.

“Miriam gave me permission to try,” said poet Sarah Ens, author of The World is Mostly Sky, speaking from a cozy corner table at the Yellow Dog Tavern, an unpretentious downtown watering hole with a pressed tin ceiling and a long list of local microbrews.

“Coming from Landmark, I thought, I’m probably not going to write Paradise Lost. But then you see that someone else who grew up around here could write A Complicated Kindness. That book was a revelation. It changed what I thought was possible.”

Jonathan Dyck, a pastor’s son from Winkler, loves the way Ms. Toews uses humour to sabotage Mennonite seriousness and to instill a sense of solidarity with the displaced and the marginal.

He recalls seeing Ms. Toews and musician John K. Samson marching together with a banner at Steinbach’s inaugural Pride in 2016: “That image meant so much to me. The fact that they felt they needed to be there – that they were there without any shame, present and visible. It meant everything.”

“She helped me understand that truth and fiction don’t have to be opposed – that the best writing often contains both,” says Mr. Dyck, who recently published the graphic novel, Shelterbelts. “But most of all, it’s her focus on voice and its relation to power that has stayed with me and continues to influence the way I write.”

Author Casey Plett, a trans lit icon best known for her novel Little Fish, weighed in from New York in a later interview: “Miriam impacted the ways I think and write more than any other writer,” she said.

Ms. Ens said she has never understood why people were mad about Kindness. To her, the love for Mennonites and for Steinbach was “so, so present.” It was calling on Mennonites to be “more accepting, more forgiving, more loving.”

That is in fact what Ms. Toews says she was trying to do with the book.

“When you have something harsh to say there will be resistance. I understand that now,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt or offend. But I had to say what I needed to say.” Steinbach, she adds, “has really, really changed in some ways. And in others, not at all.”

Indeed, Halloween remains locally controversial. You can buy summa borscht and schmauntfat gravy by the gallon. A sign barring sunflower seeds – Mennonite chewing tobacco – is affixed to the entry of the Heritage Museum. The last church Ms. Toews attended, now known as Cornerstone Bible Church, recently painted a transphobic message above its bathrooms: “HE CREATED MAN AND WOMAN, AND IT WAS GOOD.”

No public official would go record on the topic of Ms. Toews. The closest The Globe could get was former mayor Chris Goertzen, who would say only that: “Miriam has a complicated relationship with Steinbach.”

And yet even here, time marches on. The city’s first mosque opened in February. Its growing Filipino diaspora is now big enough for its own basketball league. The local Keystone Cinema showed Women Talking all this week, leading to the Academy Awards. Columnist Abe Warkentin, now in his 90s, conceded in an e-mail to The Globe that Ms. Toews is a gifted and beautiful writer.

Those civic leaders so offended by Ms. Toews have begun ceding the mantle to a new generation of Penners, Reimers, Funks and Friesens — and maybe some Azizes and Mendozas, too.

Construction recently began on a school in the brand-new Steinbach subdivision of Parkhill Place. If the Hanover School Division needs inspiration for the name, a group of local writers and Hollywood stars have an idea worth considering. Miriam Toews Elementary School has a lovely ring to it.

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