Community & Current Events

Book club guide: Swing Low - A Life, by Miriam Toews

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Book club guide: Swing Low - A Life, by Miriam Toews

1. Swing Low is a portrait of a human life but also of a small town at a particular point in time. What factors do you think may have exacerbated Mel's struggle with bipolar disorder? Consider, for instance, traditional gender roles, aspects of the Mennonite religion and the treatment of mental illness.

2. At the beginning of the book, Mel describes his writing as a "series of jerky stills, courtesy of my renegade mind." How would you describe the symptoms of bipolar disorder based on Mel's account of his life and inner world? How is his mental state occasionally revealed in the way in which he expresses himself?

3. What role does the idea of home play in Swing Low? Consider, for instance, Mel's recurring dream, his feelings toward his pink house, his memories from childhood and his description of depression as "not feeling at home in this world."

4. What is the author's role in the book outside of the brief prologue and epilogue? How would you characterize the relationship between Miriam and her father based on Mel's account?

5. For those who have read A Complicated Kindness, what similarities and differences do you see between Mel and Ray? Elvira and Trudie? Steinbach and East Village?

6. What is the relationship between loss and knowledge in both Swing Low and A Complicated Kindness? Discuss the ways in which Mel Toews and Nomi Nickel value words. How do they use humour?

7. What significance do flowers, sunshine and travel have in the book? How does Mel occasionally move toward freedom? How does he resist it? Discuss the moments in which Elvira inspires him with her courage and high spirits.

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8. Mel writes: "I vacillated wildly between thinking everything mattered, that every word, every action, every task was important, to thinking that nothing at all mattered, that everything was futile." Also: "I felt there was no hope for the world, that evil would inevitably triumph over good, and that there was, therefore, no point in striving for goodness. And yet I also felt that the struggle to be good was the purpose of life. Certainly of my life." What contradictions does Mel negotiate throughout his life?

9. "I'm sixty-two years old and still wanting my mother to hold me in her arms just once and tell me that she loves me." Does Mel ever forgive his mother? Does he at least achieve some measure of understanding her?

10. Swing Low has been called a "genre-bender." What qualities of the book strike you as characteristic of fiction, of creative non-fiction and of traditional biography?

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Book club guide: Swing Low - A Life, by Miriam Toews