The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

Winner of the 2008 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Finalist for the 2008 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction

Shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize

Finalist for the 2008 McNally Robinson Book of the Year

A Globe and Mail Best Book – 2008

Miriam Toews is without a doubt one of Canada’s brightest active literary stars. The Flying Troutmans is Toews follow-up to the immensely successful A Complicated Kindness, winner of the Governor-General’s Award, Canada Reads, and a display case full of other prizes. When a book reaches that level of success there is always a lot of apprehension on both the writer’s and reader’s side about whether the next piece can possibly measure up. The Flying Troutmans does just that; this novel is yet another perfectly penned piece of 21st century Canadian fiction.

This novel centers around three characters: Hattie, who starts the novel living the life of an artist in Paris; Hattie’s 11 year old precocious and talkative niece Thebes; and 15 year old nephew Logan who talks very little but loves to shoot hoops and has an ingrained talent for lyrical poetry. Hattie returns to Manitoba after receiving a phone call from Thebes explaining that her mother, Hattie’s sister, Min, has had another breakdown. Once Min is admitted to the hospital to deal with her latest psychotic episode the story really gets rolling.

The Flying Troutmans is a classic road story in the same tradition as Jack Kerouac’s legendary tales. The novel moves along at a great pace that would hold the attention of even the most casual readers. The Troutmans hit the road in search of the kids’ estranged father Cherkis. Along the way they stop in a variety of little ‘burbs, greasy-spoons, dive motels, and meet a number of memorable characters while intertwining a number of sharp vignettes. The action is primarily driven through the dialogue; whether it is between characters or internal. Hattie and the children learn a lot about themselves, each other, and life in general while trying their best to deal with this impossible situation they have been handed. Toews makes a great effort to show the readers what being human and being alive is all about and succeeds masterfully at it.

This novel can be given many labels; it is a road story, it is a story about mental illness, it is a story of survival, and ultimately it is a story of hope. Like her previous works the author finds a seamless way to blend humour and serious issues; she recognizes that sometimes life is funny, sometimes tragic, but in the end it is what it is. One of the reasons I am such a huge fan of Miriam Toews is the way she understands how to write young characters. In recent memory there have been other novels with young people as the central characters enter the CanLit world, Pandora by Sylvia Fraser and Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill come to mind, while I do love these books their young characters lack a certain authenticity. The youth of Toews stories, especially the Troutman children, are so well written and described that it defies belief. I am certain that 30 years from now when we are looking at the CanLit canon, Miriam Toews will be in the same category as Laurence, Ondaatje, Wiseman or Engel. As I did after I finished A Complicated Kindness I now eagerly await her next brilliant exploration.

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