This is a modified version of an article I wrote, pre-Corona, that was published by Anglophile Magazine in July 2019.
On a regular basis, big tour buses pull up near our house and tourists from all around the world pour into the street to pay a visit to a hidden church that looks like a regular house from the outside. In Dutch this church is known as ‘schuilkerkje.’ A sign on the façade says Menno’s Fermanje, which is Frisian for Menno’s Admonition.
When I first moved to this village I wasn’t sure what the hidden church was exactly. Was it something to do with WWII? Had Hitler forbidden certain church services?
But then I picked up All My Puny Sorrows, a novel that is part fiction, part autobiography, by Canadian writer Miriam Toews (rhymes with waves), and it shed light on everything.
Toews herself grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, and I discovered that the Mennonite community that Toews describes in her novel has its roots on my doorstep.
Menno Simons was a Baptist vicar who lived in Holland and Germany from 1496–1561. His religious legacy lives on through diaspora communities around the world, and, as is often the case, this diaspora is a result of persecutions.
All My Puny Sorrows draws on the mental illness and subsequent suicide of Toews’ sister Marjorie in 2010. The novel was published in 2014 and it is Toews’ seventh book and sixth novel. It has won several literary awards. Toews has also written a book on her father’s suicide, entitled: Swing Low.
Yolandi and Elfrieda
Yolandi (Yoli) narrates the story. She’s a writer who lives in Toronto and a single mother of two teenage children by two different fathers. She is going through her second divorce but she’s dating too. Yolandi’s sister Elfrieda (Elf) is in her late forties. She is married to Nic and she’s a successful concert pianist who has given recitals around the world.
The novel is set in the fictitious East Village— a small Mennonite town where the sisters grew up together and where church elders run the show—and in Winnipeg where Yolandi visits Elfrieda in hospital. While writers are often advised to use flashbacks sparingly (especially at the start of a story), Toews uses them throughout her novel. (The structure of my own novel, Coffee Spills & Songs was actually inspired by All My Puny Sorrows).
The story begins in 1973 when Yolandi is a child and watches her house being taken away on the back of a truck. That sounds rather dramatic but the flashbacks that describe the childhood years are a lot happier than the adult years that play out in ‘real time’ and that revolve around depression, hospitals and suicide attempts. It is especially the character of Elfrieda that benefits from the story’s nonlinear structure, as the flashbacks help build her character and we see how quirky and funny she was before depression gripped her. Yolandi recalls a design her sister once came up with, which she spray-painted in red around East Village. The design was inspired by Elfrieda’s own initials: E.V.R. (Elfrieda Von Riesen) and the line ‘all my puny sorrows’ from a poem by Samuel Coleridge (‘To a Friend,’ 1796). Elfrieda put the initials A.M.P. below her own and swirled the letter S through it.
Yolandi also recalls how Elfrieda once “conducted a door-to-door survey to see how many people in town would be interested in changing the name of it from East Village to Shangri-La and managed to get over a hundred signatures by telling people the name was from the bible and meant a place of no pride” (p.9). Yes, comic relief is interspersed throughout this otherwise tragic plot, and so are the anecdotes about life in a Mennonite community. In one scene, the family is paid a visit by the Bishop and thirteen elders because they have heard through the grapevine that Elfrieda wants to go to university to study music. “Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book” (p. 12), Yoli explains, but this doesn’t deter the Von Riesen women to follow their academic hearts. Even their mother goes to university to become a social worker and later a therapist.
In the scenes that play out in ‘real time’ we see Elfrieda as a patient. When her mother finds her on the bathroom floor covered in blood and her breath smelling of bleach, Elfrieda wants her mother to help her finish what she started and begs to be taken to the train track (an allusion to her father’s suicide).
We, readers, feel the pain, despair and exhaustion of Elfrieda’s immediate family. We see the hold she has on them when they try to talk sense into her, when they discuss her emotional state amongst themselves and when they rally round after each suicide attempt.
Husband Nic and Yolandi have an argument about a book Elfrieda ordered, entitled: Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying by author Derek Humphry. Yoli wants him to throw the book away before Elf sees it but Nic wants to respect his wife’s privacy and keep it.
It is Elfrieda’s goal to go to Switzerland to die. She asks her sister for help but Yolandi is horrified and tries to talk her out of it. However, slowly but surely, Yoli begins to come around to the idea and comes up with a plan to help Elfrieda go there after all. Only, in order to carry out the plan, Yolandi needs a loan so she goes to the bank but is told to come back when she’s got a publishing contract for her next novel. But in the end, unbeknownst to her family, Elfrieda does set off for the train tracks.
Although the story continues after Elfrieda’s death, I feel that the additional chapters lack a sense of urgency as Elfrieda’s plot strand was the strongest. But that doesn’t matter. This is a beautifully written, heartfelt novel and it was intriguing to learn about life in a Mennonite community that has Dutch roots, from a Canadian author.