A captivating story of a family in crisis

This is a story of a family in crisis. It’s a sad story, but a tale told with such humour and pathos that it becomes a crazy roller-coaster ride, with almost everyone holding on for dear life.

All My Puny Sorrows

By Miriam Toews

$29.95 Knopf Canada

This is a story of a family in crisis. It’s a sad story, but a tale told with such humour and pathos that it becomes a crazy roller-coaster ride, with almost everyone holding on for dear life.

The narrator is Yolandi, youngest daughter of Jake and Lottie Von Riesen. Yolandi also nicknamed “Swivelhead” by Elfrieda, her elder sister, because of her tendency to watch everything that is happening, and missing nothing.

The family are old country Mennonites, raised with so many rules that the joy is sucked out of life.

Swing Low: a Life, by Miriam Toews, is the story of the suicide of her father. This book, though written as fiction, adds to that story in many ways.

Elfrieda (Elf) grows up to be a world-renowned pianist, despite the stringent rules against even owning a piano in their Mennonite community.

She is a troubled genius and plays the piano with such emotion that she is exhausted and depressed after her concert tours.

=Her greatest wish is to leave this life, and she bends all her efforts to that end, including asking Yoli to take her to Switzerland and help her die.

Yolandi has lived her life with energy often misdirected; she fights every restriction the church legislates.

After two failed marriages, she has become a writer of rodeo stories for young girls. Now she is working on a “real” novel, the manuscript of which she carries around in a Safeway bag.

She loves her sister and in the fight to keep her sister from suicide, Yolandi takes on the world.

She blames her aggressive style on “Mennonite men in church with tight collars and bulging necks accusing (me) of preposterous acts and damning me to some underground fire. …”

Yolandi’s observations of people are droll and not always kind. She speaks of “the angry woman’s mouth like a pencil with two sharpened ends.” She asks, “Who put the fist in pacifist?”

Lottie, the mother of Yolandi and Elfrieda, is arguably the strongest character in the book.

She never let herself be cowed by the rules of their village, but remained strong and open hearted. She lost her husband and a niece to suicide and is deeply troubled by her daughter’s wish to die, and the treatment or lack of it on the psych ward.

Lottie stays sane with online Scrabble and sudoko.

She immerses herself in political causes in faraway places and drinks lots of red wine.

In her own way, she holds the family together.

The title of this novel comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “I too a sister had, an only sister — she loved me dearly and I doted on her! To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows … O! I have woke at midnight, and have wept, because She was NOT!…”

Miriam Toews lives in Toronto and is the author of A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans and Irma Voth.

Peggy Freeman is a local freelance books reviewer.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Lyn Radford, 2019 Canada Winter Games board chair, was named 2020 Sport Event Volunteer of the Year at the Prestige Awards. (File photo by Advocate staff)
WATCH: Lyn Radford wins award for volunteer efforts

The board chair of the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Red Deer dips below 300 active COVID-19 cases

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Red Deer continued to drop… Continue reading

A candlelight vigil will be held in Red Deer on Thursday to honour the 350-plus people killed in the Easter bombing attack in Sri Lanka. Contributed photo
Candlelight vigil planned for deaths linked to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak

A candlelight vigil is being planned for those who died due to… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels forward Jaxsen Wiebe battles Calgary Hitmen forward Cael Zimmerman for a loose puck when the two teams squared off in February last season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Calgary Hitmen shutout Red Deer Rebels

Rebels name centre Jayden Grubbe team captain ahead of Friday’s game

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
WATCH: Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Funeral for Walter Gretzky to be held Saturday in home town of Brantford, Ont.

The funeral for hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s father Walter will take place… Continue reading

A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building is shown in Ottawa on May 14, 2013. A newly released audit report shows that difficulties with the judicial warrant process at Canada's spy agency — an issue that made headlines last summer — stretch back at least nine years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Spy warrant shortcomings stretch back almost a decade, newly released audit shows

OTTAWA — A newly released audit report shows that difficulties with the… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday night’s Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the estimated $29 million… Continue reading

A trial countdown sign marks the days at George Floyd Square, March 4, 2021, in Minneapolis. Ten months after police officers brushed off George Floyd's moans for help on the street outside a south Minneapolis grocery, the square remains a makeshift memorial for Floyd who died at the hand of police making an arrest. The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin will begin with jury selection on March 8. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Officer’s trial could reopen intersection where Floyd died

MINNEAPOLIS — During a group’s recent meeting at the now-vacant Speedway gas… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2020 file photo Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell calls for an end to violence in the city during a news conference a day after a demonstrator was shot and killed in downtown Portland. Amid protests following the police killing of George Floyd last year Portland dissolved a special police unit designed to focus on gun violence. Critics say the squad unfairly targeted Black people, but gun violence and homicides have since spiked in Oregon's largest city, and some say disbanding the 35-officer unit was a mistake. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP, File)
As violence surges, some question Portland axing police unit

PORTLAND, Ore. — Elmer Yarborough got a terrifying call from his sister:… Continue reading

Harley Hay
Harley Hay: Just don’t call it cod liver oil

Many people swear that a daily dose of various vitamins is an… Continue reading

Email editor@auburn-reporter.com
Letter: Preserving green spaces in Red Deer

The Advocate published an article Feb. 11 about Sunnybrook residents concerned about… Continue reading

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Former Toronto Argonauts lineman Chris Schultz remembered as a gentle giant

Most Read