“Prepare to fall in love this summer,” I imagine the deep-voiced movie trailer guy telling me. “With a nine-year-old girl and her feisty grandma.”
Cheesy, I know, but this is what I kept hearing in my brain as I tore through Miriam Toews’s new novel, Fight Night. And in the weeks since I finished it, I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
Because I did fall in love – hard. With its narrator, nine-year-old Swiv, expelled from school after a fight, and who is writing about her life in a letter to her absent father. With her mom, Mooshie, a pregnant actor trying to keep it together through mood swings and workplace drama. And especially with Elvira, Swiv’s grandmother, who has given her this letter-writing assignment, trying to homeschool her while Mooshie goes off to rehearsals.
Why the movie trailer guy in my head? Maybe because of what’s happening with Toews’s career – a film based on her 2014 novel All My Puny Sorrows is about to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival; another film based on her last novel, Women Talking, is currently in production with an A-list Hollywood cast – Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand and Claire Foy. (Toews visited the set a few days before our interview. “It’s all just wild and hilarious and cool,” she said.) Her 2011 novel Irma Voth has also been optioned for the screen.
Or maybe it’s because of how cinematic this novel is: Grandma sitting on the curb outside the 7-Eleven, singing hymns with a homeless man wearing her old Winnipeg Jets sweatpants. Swiv and Grandma trying to drive a stick-shift convertible through the streets of Fresno, Calif. The novel’s frantic and beautiful final scenes.
Perhaps it’s the “in a world” part of the movie-trailer trope that I’m stuck on. Because Fight Night inhabits a world that Toews’s readers will be familiar with – and its characters, or versions of them: A Mennonite family from rural Manitoba. Strong women. A smart, young female protagonist. A wise, older woman, the heart of the family. Patriarchal religious oppression. And depression: a father and a beloved older sister who have ended their own lives.
Fight Night’s Elvira is inspired and based on Toews’s real mother, Elvira. They share many characteristics.
Elvira, the character, is a larger-than-life Mennonite grandmother with a serious heart condition, who has dealt with great tragedy. Yet she has an infectious zest for life, a continued hunger for adventure – and wisdom to impart.
So a science lesson might become a life lesson. “It’s one’s ability to create light from within,” Grandma explains to Swiv, about bioluminescence. “Like a firefly. I think you have that, Swivchen. You have a fire inside you and your job is to not let it go out.”
It’s impossible as you read this novel to not compare the action and characters with Toews’ real world, and yet at the same time, you become so sucked into this fictional world that you forget everything else. A contradiction? Maybe – but this is Toews’s power. Returning us to different versions of this world, making us care again and again.
Miriam Toews, 57, was raised in Steinbach, Man. She is a bestselling and award-winning author perhaps still best known for her 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness. Fight Night is her ninth book. Toews (pronounced “Taves,” rhymes with “faves”) lived for years in Winnipeg and is now in Toronto. She has recently moved across her backyard into a laneway house she and her partner have had built. Her mother still lives on the first floor of the big house, as they call it. Her daughter and daughter’s husband and their two young sons – the baby was born just a few weeks ago – live upstairs.
In Toews’s 2000 memoir Swing Low: A Life, readers met the non-fictionalized version of Elvira Toews, a devout Mennonite, mother of two daughters and wife to Mel, a beloved school teacher suffering from mental illness. Melvin Toews killed himself in 1998.
All My Puny Sorrows was inspired by the suicide of Toews’s older sister, Marjorie in 2010. In this fictionalized family, the sisters’ mother moves to Toronto to live with her other daughter, the book’s narrator. (“To my mother, Elvira Toews, Life Force!” Toews wrote in the acknowledgements.)
Through so much loss, Elvira, the real one, now 86, has kept it together. And kept together the family as well.
“She is a life force. She is the rock in our lives,” Toews says. Her mother returned to school to do social work as a mature student, and became a therapist. At one point, Toews explains, colleagues at the university who were writing a psychology textbook wanted to use Elvira as a case study for the chapter on resilience.
“She’s just the most resilient, joyful person that I’ve ever known and she radiates a kind of joyful but tender anti-authoritarianism. And so as she goes through life, she has this aura of defiance, on the one hand, and resistance. And also just a deep, deep, deep, deep abiding love and tenderness and compassion for humanity. She’s curious. She’s the most well-adjusted person I’ve ever met and I can only ever dream of having a fraction of that,” Toews says. She was talking from her mother’s bedroom in the big house while the builders were doing something to the kitchen of the laneway house.
“Both my father and my sister took their own lives. And when my sister died … she said, ‘Okay, how am I going to survive this?’ And her answer to herself was: I need to help people. Who can I help?”
In Fight Night, the fictional Elvira helps Swiv – a character who could almost grow up to be A Complicated Kindness’s Nomi Nickel (not literally, of course; the books are set in different times and different places) – and helps Mooshie by helping Swiv.
“I think of all of my books … as one big book. Every protagonist is some version of me and there’s always some version of my sister, some version of my mother, just some version of the people in my world,” Toews says. “And absolutely Swiv becomes Nomi who becomes Irma Voth. … I think of them all as inhabiting the same kind of brain and body in a way.”
Fight Night was also inspired by the birth of Toews’s grandchildren – she has four; her son, who lives in Winnipeg, has two young daughters. The novel is dedicated to them and two cousins. What do these babies need to know, she thought? What kind of wisdom? She loved the intersection of wisdom offered by Swiv and Elvira, between innocence and experience.
(“He looked sad and happy at the same time,” Swiv notes in the novel, about a cousin. “That’s a popular adult look because adults are busy and have to do everything at once, even feel things.”)
Toews worries about how terrifying it could be for her grandchildren when they learn about the mental illness in the family, in their genes. “Eventually we’re going to have those very hard conversations,” she says. “And I wanted them to know too that there’s other stuff going on in our family. Look at Elvira; look at your great-grandma. So for better or worse, I just tried to craft a narrative around that idea. Something that was encouraging, and helpful.”
Elvira has read the book, as she does all of her daughter’s work. “She gets a real bang out of it,” Toews says. “She is kind of one of those people that I write for, that I write to.”
A big reader – she loves whodunits – Elvira, like the character based on her in this book, cuts her books up into sections so they’re not too heavy. For the film adaptation of Irma Voth, she was hired as a translator for the Plautdietsch, also known as Mennonite Low German. She is a devout Mennonite – she was made an Elder of the Church – and a devoted Raptors fan. She has had a heart condition for decades and was hospitalized during the pandemic. “She died and came back to life,” says Toews. She recovered after a stay in hospital.
Her heart trouble is real, but if her life was a novel, it could be a metaphor for all the heartbreak she has endured.
“She’s not in denial. She’ll talk to you and to me and to anybody, any person about the hard stuff, about losing her husband and her daughter. She’s the 13th kid in her family and the last remaining. She’s lost a lot,” Toews says.
“Obviously she suffers. And we could get together and cry for days. But the way that she grieves, the way that she lives life, the way that she embraces life and the world, her adventurousness … she’s just this incredible relentless resilient life force.”
Fight Night’s Elvira is also an incredible, relentless resilient life force. Readers will fall in love with her this summer – and long afterward. You won’t want to wait for the movie.
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