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Swing Low: A Life [Paperback]

Miriam Toews
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 1 2005
After her father took his own life in 1998, Miriam Toews decided to face her confusion and pain straight on. In writing her father’s memoir, she was motivated by two primary goals: For her own sake, she needed to understand, or at least accept, her father’s final decision. For her father’s sake, she needed to honour him, to elucidate his life and to demonstrate its worth.

Apart from its brief prologue and epilogue, Swing Low is written entirely from Mel Toews’s perspective. Miriam Toews has her father tell his story from bed as he waits in a Steinbach hospital to be transferred to a psychiatric facility in Winnipeg. Mel turns to writing to make sense of his condition, to review his life in the hope of seeing it more clearly. He remembers himself as an anxious child, the son of a despondent father and an alcoholic mother, who never once made him feel loved. At seventeen he was diagnosed with manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder). His psychiatrist’s predictions were grim: Mel shouldn’t count on marrying, starting a family or holding down a job. With great courage and determination, Mel went on to do all three: he married his childhood sweetheart, had two happy daughters and was a highly respected and beloved teacher for forty years.

Although Mel was able to keep his disorder hidden from the community, his family frequently witnessed his unravelling. Over the years this schism between his public and private life grew wider. An outgoing and tireless trailblazer at school, he often collapsed into silence and despair at home. Ironically, in trying to win his family’s love through hard work and accomplishments, he deprived them of what they yearned for most: his presence, his voice. Once he retired from teaching – "the daily ritual of stepping outside himself" – Mel lost his creative outlet and, with it, his hope.

In the Globe and Mail, author Moira Farr described Swing Low as "audacious, original and profoundly moving." She added: "Getting into the head of your own father – your own largely silent, mentally ill father, who killed himself – has to be a kind of literary high-wire act that few would dare to try.… Healing is a likely outcome of a book imbued with the righteous anger, compassion and humanity of Swing Low."

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From Publishers Weekly

Toews's father, Mel, lived the simple life of a faithful Mennonite community member in mid-20th-century Canada, as a schoolteacher, father and devout churchgoer. In 1952, only a few knew he had been diagnosed with manic depression at age 17, and his struggle to conceal this from the world and maintain a "normal" life met with varying degrees of success until retirement shook his self-image and he began to slide into his most serious depression. This ordinary but poignant biography, written by his daughter (A Boy of Good Breeding), reconstructs Mel's story in his own voice, which, once established, provides a deeply sympathetic imagining of a manic depressive's interior world. From an early age, Toews's father believed that "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." In Toews's version, Mel eventually turns to writing to make sense of his condition, to review his life in the hope of seeing it more clearly.What engages us is a strong and realistic sense of a man who chose to use the little energy he had to construct a safe world for his family, but one in which he felt he could never fully participate. For Toews, by "dragging some of the awful details into the light of day," she recognized that her father "found a way to alleviate his pain, and so have I."

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Manic depression, or bipolar disorder, is commonly characterized by hyperactive highs and extreme lows, the latter sometimes leading to suicide. One day Canadian Melvin Toews got out of bed, dressed, and headed out the door. He sat or knelt at a train track and waited for the train, which eventually came. A lifetime of manic depression with no real treatment may have led him to that sad end. How he may have come to that point was the question that prompted his daughter to write her father's "memoir." Using in part her father's writings, Miriam Toews chronicles her father's life effectively "in his own words." His strict Mennonite community and upbringing may have led to a life in which he had to endure his illness without treatment, and for a time he was successful. Both his work as an elementary-school teacher and his dedication to building the perfect home masked his problem for a while. When he was finally hospitalized, it probably was too late to help him cope with his illness. Marlene Chamberlain
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very compassionate look at depression Feb. 24 2007
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
For me, this book took a while to warm up but when it did, there was no putting it down. In the course of telling the story of her late father's life leading up to his death by suicide from manic-depression, Toews offers the reader some very instructive moments on how a victim may attempt to cope with such a terrible disorder. Melvin Toews comes across as a tender,quiet and thoughtful person who doesn't want to burden others with his personal problems, so chooses to make a world where he can relate to others on more sociable terms. Reaching out to his students as a caring teacher and relating to his family as a effective and supportive provider were just a couple of strategies he used to privately cope with his downturns. In the end, it was Melvin's retirement from teaching that caused him to lose hope in himself. When a person is stripped of his ability to cope with whatever besieges him, suicide becomes a very tragic possibility. Well written with lots of little anecdotes and well worth the read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sweet Chariot Nov. 2 2011
While many father memoirs are remarkable for their inventive excellence, few are as original and as powerful as Swing Low. In Swing Low: A Life, Miriam Toews imagines herself into her father's head, and brings him back to life as a narrative 'I.' Her imaginative accomplishment is all the more remarkable in that her father suffered from bipolar disease throughout his life, and eventually his depression became so deep and his mind so confused that that he committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. Such a story would be horrific and depressing, if it weren't for the calmness of the narrative voice. Toews' father was a Mennonite living and teaching in a small Manitoba town, and in her rendering of her father's interior life Toews also explores the tensions between self and community and teases out 'the complicated kindness' which makes those tensions almost bearable. Despite the father's mental illness and suicide, Swing Low is a wonderfully sane and life affirming book.

Andre Gerard
Editor of Fathers: A Literary Anthology
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A true inside look into a life of depression March 26 2006
Having grown up with a parent suffering as the author's own father did, I found this book fascinating and easy to relate to. For anyone who still sees depression as something we shouldn't talk about or try to understand, I highly recommend this book. It may change the way you feel about the mental illness. If you have read and enjoyed any of Miriam Toews fantastic books, pick this one up and give it a try. I was hooked right from the first few pages as I am with all of her books. After reading this book, I felt like I've actually met the author, and her family. Miriam Toews has that distinct knack for drawing her readers into her own life through her books. She is one of my favorite Canadian Authors, one I hope we will hear more from in the years to come!
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