Canadian Lit: The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

While I'm up here in Canada waiting for my U.S. work visa to be processed, I figure there's no better time to catch up on the latest in Canadian Literature. Which is why, most Saturdays, I spend hours in Chapters (Canada's Barnes & Noble equivalent) and infallibly emerge with a fat stack of books penned by Canada's best. Some of the authors are likely familiar to American fiction lovers—Margaret Attwood, Alice Munro, Leonard Cohen—but have you heard of the edgy, unforgettable Miriam Toews ? If not, she’s well worth reading.

Her latest book, The Flying Troutmans , is a national bestseller in Canada—and with good reason. Published by Knopf Canada in late 2008, it’s a wrenching and hilarious tale of a dysfunctional family on a cross-country road trip in search of a long-lost member of the tribe. The book draws obvious comparisons to the smart, slapstick Indie flick Little Miss Sunshine, but somehow digs in deeper, taking an unflinching look at the issue of mental illness.

As the book opens, 30-s0mething narrator Hattie Troutman gets word that her older sister, Min, has fallen into another one of her paralyzing depressions. Hattie’s just been dumped by her boyfriend in Paris, so she heads back to the U.S. to look after Min’s kids—11-year-old Theodora (Thebes) and 15-year-old Logan.

Realizing Min’s in for a long haul at the hospital and unwilling to relinquish her niece and nephew to foster homes, Hattie devises a half-baked plan to find the kids’ father in California. The three of them head out in a crappy old van, and much angst and hilarity ensues.

What kills me most about this book are the characters. Thebes is purple-haired, sticky with temp tattoos, and never bathes. She alternates between cheery gangsta greetings (“What's shakin' homies?”) and wise-for-her-years one-liners (“I'm on thin ice in the social hierarchy department,” she tells Hattie at one point.)

Logan is moody and broody, but good natured deep down in that oversized grey hoodie he wears. He carves cryptic messages into the van’s dashboard, and listens to music on gigantic air traffic control-sized earphones. Hattie’s a mess, but she’s doing her best to hold things together as Min falls apart.

As the flung-together family navigates through hilarity and misfortune, Toews paces the story with flashbacks to Hattie’s childhood. We learn the history of Min’s illness, how she suffered from symptoms ranging from obsessive and depressive to suicidal and even homicidal. Sometimes kind, sometimes cruel, Min was a mystery Hattie could never quite solve. In spite of it all, though, Hattie’s love for her sister was steadfast. As Ron Charles writes in his review for The Washington Post Book World , “We're never allowed to forget for long that, beneath the comedy, this is a story of loving someone who is mentally ill and of standing by your responsibilities no matter what.”

On Toews’ writing itself, Charles has this to say: “Miriam Toews saunters along the line between comedy and grief as if she might lose her balance at any moment. But she never does.”

Nope. She doesn’t. It’s an amazing balancing act from start to finish.

A little background on Toews: in spite of her street-smart, edgy tone, she was raised by Mennonites in smalltown Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. Her 2004 breakthrough novel, A Complicated Kindness, spent over a year on the Canadian bestseller list and won the Governor General’s Award for English fiction. She is also the author of the non-fiction memoir Swing Low: A Life, about her father, who was a victim of lifelong depression.

OK, 'nuff said. If you haven't read The Flying Troutmans yet, by all means, do so.