A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews
For our final piece of literature, we will be reading Miriam Toews' novel, A Complicated Kindness. Follow the trials and tribulations of our narrator, sixteen year old Nomi Nickel, as she struggles to find answers to her dysfunctional family in the stifling Mennonite community of East Village.
New York Times Review
Questions and Activities
Grade 12 -GBH Novel Study: A Complicated Kindness Part 1
Part 1: Chapters 1-6 (end) pp.1-46
1. The novel is set in a small Mennonite town in southern Manitoba. What do we
learn about Mennonite culture and values from Nomi in this part of the novel?
What is Nomi’s attitude toward her religion? Copy the chart below into your notes
to record your findings.
Description of Mennonite Religion, Beliefs, Traditions, Leaders etc.
What it Tells Us About Mennonite Culture
2. There are several pop culture references in the novel that reveal when the story
takes place. For example, in this chunk, Nomi mentions:
musical artists John Lennon, Billy Joel, Led Zeppelin, The Cars
the film The Swiss Family Robinson
the television shows Bewitched, and Batman
Look up these artists, films, and TV shows on line to find out when they were
released and popular. What do they reveal about when the story takes place?
3. On page 4 Nomi says "If we could get out of this town things might be better…."
Who does she mean by "we"? Why haven’t they left the town?
1. Nomi says about East Village:
This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. There’s an invisible force that exerts a steady pressure on our words like a hand to an open, spurting wound. (4)
What does she mean?
2. Have you ever lived in a small town/village, or attended a small school? What are
the pros and cons of life in such small communities, especially for a teenager?
Consider the implications for social life, entertainment, career opportunities, the
chance to learn new things and to learn about the world. Compare and contrast
your experiences and opinions to Nomi’s.
3. Despite Nomi’s complaints and Trudie’s raging about the simplisticness of the
town and the church, Nomi explains "But there is a kindness here. A complicated
kindness." (46). What do you think she means by this?
4. The author develops characters by having the narrator, Nomi, describe what she
remembers and observes about them. Re-read the passage describing Trudie on
pages 18-19 (beginning "There were other things you may not necessarily know
or remember about my mother" and ending "…filled the silent part of their lives
with books and coffee and other things.").
Notice the pattern that the sentences follow. Most of them begin with "She…" followed by a verb to describe something Trudie did or believed, rather than how she looked. Nomi essentially strings together different images she recalls that help paint a picture of who her mom is.
5. The novel is told through the eyes of one character, Nomi. This is referred to as a first person narrator. Does this type of narrator add or detract from the story?
6. Who is Sheridan? Who is Lydia?
7. What is shunning? Describe the "bedtime shunning story".
8. Who is Hans Rosenfeldt?
Page 8 - "My mother’s dream was to go to the Holy Land. She was very intrigued with Jews. There were none in our town. There were no black people or Asians either. We all looked pretty much the same, like a science fiction universe."
Page 21 - The other day I found her passport in her drawer when I was putting away my dad’s laundered handkerchiefs. I wish I hadn’t. For the purpose of my story, she should have it with her. I sat on my dad’s bed and flipped through page after empty page. No stamps. No exotic locales... Just the ID information and my mother’s black and white photo...
ENG 12 - GBH Novel Study: A Complicated Kindness Part 2
Part 2: Chapters 7-11 (end) pp.47-94
1. Discuss the Mouth’s early years.
2. a). Record TWO quotations from this part of the novel that you feel best reveal
Ray’s character. (They can be lines actually spoken by Ray or about Ray) Explain what aspects of his character each quote reveals.
b) Describe Nomi’s relationship with Ray.
3. Complete a DRATS chart to assess Tash’s character.
4. What seems to be the problem with Lids? What do you believe the nurses think it is?
5. Why do so many Americans visit the town?
6. What is Nomi’s "new faith"? (91)
7. Who is The Golden Comb? What role does he play in the community of East
Village? What, according to Nomi, do Menno Simmons and The Golden Comb have
in common? (78)
Read and discuss the quotations taken from Part 2 of the novel. Evaluate each of the quotations using the Evaluating a Quotation chart provided. Then, choose the THREE that you think are the most significant quotes in this chunk of the novel –THREE that are essential to this part of the story’s plot, character development, atmosphere, or to developing an important insight (theme).
Passages/Quotations from Chunk 2
A. I once had a conversation with my typing teacher about eternal life. He wanted
me to define specifically what it was about the world that I wanted to
experience….I ended up saying stupid stuff like I just want to be myself, I just
want to do things without wondering if they’re a sin or not. I want to be free. I
want to know what it’s like to be forgiven by another human being (I was stoned,
obviously) and not have to wait around all my life anxiously wondering if I’m an
okay person or not and having to die to find out. I wanted to experience
goodness and humanity outside of any religious framework. I remember making
finger quotations in the air when I said religious framework. God, I’m an asshole.
B. When he [The Mouth] was finally finished he disappeared again for a few seconds
and then came back and leaned his head against the top part of the stove, near
the fan, the way he had earlier, like a guy completely defeated by life, with holes
he could never fill with ice cream no matter how much he ate, and I almost
started to cry thinking about poor The Mouth being dumped by the city girl and
just wanting to be able to write a poem that someone in the world would dig. (51-
C. The sweetest winds blow over us Mennos sometimes, when the poultry massacre
stops long enough for us to smell them, and they can literally stop you dead in
your tracks and break your heart. It’s the certain smell of that wind and the
sudden whoosh of heat that just undoes me. It’s a June wind mostly. An
embrace. (Did I just say embrace? Asshole.) I could smell it now. (59-60)
D. On hot nights when the wind is right, the smell of blood and feathers tucks us in
like an evil parent. There are no bars or visible exits. (52)
E. In church, she was one of the loudest singers. She knew all the words to all the
hymns and when she sang she reminded me of a bird or a political prisoner who
had just been released from her cage. (90)
F. Walking along Main Street felt ominous. It was way too bright. This is what an
autopsy must feel like, I thought. (60)
G. Our house stayed the same, in its level of disorder. My father would sigh and
escape into his world of isotopes and carbons….These radioactive elements decay
in order to become more stable. I rather like that he’d say. (92)
Evaluating a Quotation
Write the quote letter in the space provided; then rate it in light of each of the established criteria. Explain your rating in the column on the right.
Not at all Somewhat Definitely
1 2 3
Not at all Somewhat Definitely
1 2 3
Imagery adds to atmoshpere
Not at all Somewhat Definitely
1 2 3
Not at all Somewhat Definitely
1 2 3
Activity/Journal (Stage 2)
You may develop your own journal topic based on an issue, idea, event, or character in this section of the novel, or you may write about the topic below.
1. Nomi often refers to the songs that specific characters like in order to give us an
impression of that person’s attitude, likes, desires, etc. Reflect on two or three
songs that you listen to frequently and explain what they reveal about you.
ENG 12-GBH Novel Study: A Complicated Kindness Part 3
Part 3: Chapters 12-16 (end) pp.95-135
1. One of Nomi’s internal conflicts is grieving the loss of Tash and Trudie. What
similes and metaphors does she use to describe this grief on page 105,
2. Do Nomi and Travis have a good relationship? On page 107, Nomi says "You’re
beautiful, I told him, and…kind of mean." In what ways is Travis perhaps mean to
Nomi? Do you think he is pressuring her too much to take their relationship to "the
next level" by going on the birth control pill?
3. Why is Nomi so afraid when Tash gets a library card from the city? (119-120)
4. Re-read the passage describing Nomi’s meeting with her Guidance Counsellor on
pages 131-32. Notice that much of their conversation consists of incomplete
sentences. Why do you think the author has done this? What might she be trying
to convey about the quality of the communication and about the effectiveness of
the counselor in dealing with a student like Nomi?
5. Why, according to Dr. Hunter are so many people in East Village depressed? Do
you think Nomi is depressed? Offer reasons to support your assessment.
1. In the first part of the novel, Nomi explains that she has a problem with endings.
Part 3 of the novel further develops this theme (Review the last paragraph on
page 100 and the references to endings on pages 108, 110, and 112).
What do endings represent for Nomi? Why do you think she has such a problem with
them? Do you think life always offers definitive endings?
3. Why do you think Tash is in such conflict with her family and doing so poorly in
school despite being a very intelligent person?
ENG 12 - GBH Novel Study: A Complicated Kindness Part 4
Part 4 Chapters: 17-23 (end) pages: 136-196
a) Look up Christina’s World on line(you might want to include the words "poster" or "art" in your search). How is the situation of the girl depicted in the poster similar to Nomi’s situation? Why do you think Nomi writes "F You" all over the poster? (183)
b) Look up the lyrics to the song "Broken English" by Marianne Faithfull. Why might
this song appeal to Nomi? (183)
1. The descriptions of Nomi's friendship with "Lids" reveals many of Nomi's
personality traits. Make list of these traits (Nomi's) (Chapter 17)
2. At the end of Chapter 17, Nomi plays Bob Marley’s "Redemption Song" "about
twenty times". Look up the lyrics to the song if you are unfamiliar with it. Why
do you think the song resonates with Nomi at this point in the story? For what
might she be seeking redemption?
3. Chapter 18 begins with a flashback to when Nomi was 13 and Tash left home.
What new insight and understanding do we gain from this flashback about why
4. What is the significance of the dump to Ray? (157-159)
5. In Chapter 23, Nomi describes what she remembers about when Trudie left. Make
a list of what we know about why Trudie left. There are also some strange
discrepancies that Nomi mentions, like Mrs. Klippenstein being in a rest home, and
letters from Mr. Quiring in Trudie’s drawer. Make a list of what we don’t know
about why Trudie left.
1. Why is Nomi so anxious about Tash’s "bad" behaviour (before Tash leaves)? (145-
147) What does her anxiety reveal about how she views the world and the afterlife? The fears she describes in these passages are those she has when she is13 years old. What evidence is there to suggest that Nomi’s view of the world, her religion, and the afterlife are changing as she is growing older and gaining
2. On pages 149-150, Nomi and Travis discuss what it might feel like to go insane.
Insanity and mental health are frequently mentioned throughout the novel. What
aspects of the Mennonite faith and culture might make someone feel insane (or
3.When asked who her favourite character in the novel is, the author replied: "Ray,
because he loves Nomi unconditionally, and in spite of losing so much and having
to live within a conundrum, behaves with dignity and grace. He has deep religious
convictions, but also manages to maintain his humanity." Do you agree with her
assessment of Ray? Find examples of the personality traits the author describes.
4.Nomi refers to a writing assignment she must do for Mr. Quiring on page 152. It
must include a triggering point, a climax, and a resolution. The novel itself is Nomi
telling readers her own story. Does it follow this typical story pattern? What is the
triggering point? Can you predict a resolution?
5. In Chapter 20, Nomi’s house is starting to come apart: someone shoots a hole in
their living room window, Ray has started selling furniture and appliances (the
dining room table, the freezer), and, at the end of the chapter, "unpredictably, a
corner of the garage roof collapsed" while Nomi was sitting under it. Why might
the author make all of these references to the physical structures of the house
breaking or disappearing?
1. In this part of the novel we get a clear understanding of how Nomi used to view
the world when she was 13. As both Nomi and Tash grew older and gained
experience, their understanding of their religion changed. Describe how your
beliefs and attitudes about something (i.e. religion, the world, people, good and
evil, the afterlife, justice...) have changed as you’ve grown older.
ENG 12-GBH Novel Study: A Complicated Kindness Part 5
Part 5 Chapters: 24-28 (end of novel) Pages: 197-246
1. Throughout the novel, Nomi has been struggling with her faith. In particular, she has
struggled with what the Mennonite religion preaches about rejecting the things of this
world and focussing on the afterlife. In Part 5, Nomi articulates her own faith. As you
read this section of the novel, make a list of what Nomi has faith in. What does Ray
have faith in? (209, 234 …)
2. Often on their journey, a character must experience a spiritual, physical, and
psychological low point. This is called a nadir. Examine Nomi's experiences in Part 5
and record the moments that comprise her nadir. In tragedy, the protagonist is
usually unable to emerge from this nadir. Does Nomi emerge from it? Offer support.
Is the novel a tragedy? Do you notice any similarities between Nomi's experiences
and those of any spiritual figures you've heard about?
Some of the "low points" include the passages below. Why is each a low point?
I went into the bathroom, puked, passed out in my bed, and briefly died, until the sun rose once again reminding me of renewed hope and promise and other abiding things.
Page 201 Why do you hate me? I cried out, yeah, cried out, to the sun.
Page 208 Used Tash's Lady Schick to finally reveal my entire head to the whole fuckin' world and found m old fish-hook scar again.
Pages 229, 232 (The Comb)
Nomi's excommunication Page 235
3. In Chapter 26, why does Nomi feel that she can't just leave town and start a new life?
4. What happens to Lids? (228)
5. Explain the significance of the fishhook scar. (217-219)
6. Nomi refers to Ray as "Jesus Christ" on page 233. In what way does Ray act as
Nomi's saviour in Part 5? What sacrifice does he make?
7. In Part 4, Nomi scratches her favourite quote into the driveway. On page 244, she
restates the quotation in her letter to Mr. Quiring with an important change. How has
she changed the quotation? What does this indicate about how she has changed by
the end of the novel? (Consider her new attitude toward her grief and her personal
conflicts with her religion, the town's values, etc.)
1. What do you think happened to Ray? To Nomi? How does the lack of a definitive
ending make you feel as a reader? Considering that Mr. Quiring is always insisting on
stories having clear endings, and considering that the Mennonite faith emphasizes
endings (the afterlife) to coerce people to behave a certain way, how is this lack of an
ending a positive outcome?