The Flying Troutmans is Miriam Toews’s fourth novel. Her thrilling and poignant tale of a road trip, a family, and their journey to discover the missing pieces is moving, while her own stories of being on the road are unforgettable.
Most can recount a definitive cross-country road trip taken at some point in their life. For some, it was a spontaneous post-graduation trip with friends; for others it was the long awaited family holiday of the year. For Miriam Toews, it was crisscrossing Canada and the United States with her husband and children. “We had a typical beat-up VW van and would be on the road for two or three months at a time,” while her husband, a street performer, travelled to different festivals. Miriam distinctly remembers the “divvy, divvy, divvy motels” they would stay at in-between festivals contrasted with the over-the-top lavishness of the four-star hotels when they arrived at a new gig, recounting the experience as visiting two different worlds. However, the most memorable aspect of the trip, and all will agree, is never the destination you’re heading for but the time you spend on the road getting there. “Being on the road is about survival; everything is different and everything is changing, and you’re constantly trying to figure out, what are we going to eat? How will we get food? Where are we going to get gas to keep going? How do we manage to all get along in this enclosed space? It’s a survival challenge, and it’s never static.” A survival challenge, which one finds carries over into Toews’s fourth novel, The Flying Troutmans, with the survival of an inherently dysfunctional, yet entirely lovable, family.
The Flying Troutmans begins with Hattie, a newly single, unhappy, young woman living in Paris. She receives a phone call in the middle of the night from Thebes, her talkative, 11-year-old niece who asks her to come home to Canada to help with Min, her mentally ill sister. As the only person left in her family to care for Min, Hattie returns to the home she fled from only to learn that the problems and issues have only grown greater in her absence. Logan and Thebes, Min’s children, have done their best to help Min, yet the task proves too difficult even with Hattie’s return, and as Min’s depression hits an all-time debilitating low, Hattie, Logan, and Thebes have no choice but to check Min into the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. Disconcerted by her newfound parental responsibility of her 11-year old niece and 15-year old nephew, Hattie decides that the best move (and in actuality her only move) is to try and find Logan and Thebes’s father, Cherkis. So the three pile into the family’s Ford Aerostar van and head for the American border, and the saga of the Troutmans begins.
When asked about the importance and symbolism of the journey in this novel, Toews responds: “I wanted to show Hattie’s absolute desperation, because in her own way she is just as lost as Thebes and Logan are without their mother. She has quite a few loose ends in her life by this point. She’s been dumped by her boyfriend, has no career to speak of, and is now saddled with these kids. She loves them, but she doesn’t know what to do with them, and finding Cherkis, although not the most ideal option, is the only direction she has. She’s a bit of a desperado.” The journey in the novel is more than just Hattie’s, and the reader has the privilege of watching the delicate changes Logan and Thebes experience on the road. “They’re both hurting; they’re both vulnerable, and they need a parent. They need a mother, and they have to rely on each other.” The sibling relationship between the two in many ways parallels that of Min and Hattie’s relationship growing up, providing an interesting mix of events in Hattie’s narration as she recounts memories from her childhood with Min. Toews’s novel becomes an innovative look into human experience, and the trials experienced as children that leave permanent impressions on us as adults. “I was conscious that it’s not a question of black and white. I don’t see the world that way; I don’t see human beings that way, but being human means we react to certain things, and we suffer from certain things, and there are consequences. I wanted to create a dysfunctional world, but still a loving one.”
Miriam Toews is able to so brilliantly depict a realistic world and family in a work of fiction as a result of her love and alacrity for travelling. Hailing from a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, Toews has since travelled significantly around Europe, England, the USA, and Mexico and now finds herself quite at home in the world. She describes travelling “as one of the best possible experiences because you come to realise that people are people; and people are generally good and want to help you,” a simple truth that many fail to have faith in today, since in many instances we are taught to expect the worst. Yet this humanistic ideal remains at the core of Toews’s novel amidst the narrative’s poetic disarray, with the poster-child of optimism and good will in the Troutmans being none other than the 11-year old Thebes.
It’s ironic to see the youngest family member emerge as the most self-aware, confident, and dependable one of the bunch. Although Thebes fails at some of the more basic duties of regular bathing and changing of clothes, she is entirely devoted to her role as the “entertainer” of the group — signing novelty cheques, distributing artistic creations, and developing the skill of the one-sided conversation — her journey in the novel is anything but boring. This unique portrait of a young girl in some ways stems from Toews’s own take-charge attitude as the youngest of her family.
Growing up with a father who suffered from mental illness, Toews relished her ability to entertain and get a smile or a laugh from him, anything to help make the mood light and fun. Her first-hand experience has incited a very real desire to authentically depict the effects mental illness has on individuals and their loved ones. It has the same debilitating impact of a more “traditional” disease, yet since the struggle is internal and the symptoms are not always physically visible, some fail to recognise that it remains out of any one person’s control and is not dependent upon a will to get better. In the novel, the only thing Hattie is devoted to is the hope that Min will one day recover, yet her sheer will and determination prove ineffectual. After years of witnessing her sister’s self-destructive cycle, Hattie finally realises that it is her faith in her sister’s strength and ability to recover which matter most.
However for some readers, it will be Logan’s journey as an elusive character that proves the most meaningful. Through his quiet “passion, seething, and hope” the strength of his presence and his kindness towards Min are some of the most unforgettable qualities of this novel. A reader can feel akin to the stillness and silence of Logan because he, like the reader, is very much an observer of the events going on around him. When creating characters their roles are planned but often develop, Toews says: “I try to be as true as I possibly can to the characters and to their story, so I generally discover the characters and their ending as I’m writing it. It would be impossible for me to impose an ending before I know their story.”
The Flying Troutmans is a story every reader will want to know. Through the discovery of dysfunction, relationships, faith in other human beings, and most importantly family, one comes to realise that the greatest task is not figuring out how to love yourself, but how to love the people around you.
The Flying Troutmans is out now on Faber and Faber and is available from all good bookshops. www.faber.co.uk.
Jordan Von Cannon