Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Flying Troutmans - Miriam Toews

28 year old Hattie is in Paris and in love, but when she receives a midnight call from her 11 year old niece Thebes telling her that things are falling apart at home and she gets dumped by her boyfriend, she leaves Paris to fly home to Canada to try to sort things out. She finds her sister Min lying in bed refusing to eat, clearly this is nothing new as the local psychiatric hospital have a bed for her, but when Min refuses to see her children or Hattie, Hattie becomes the sole carer for Min's children Thebes and 15 year old Logan. Logan almost immediately gets suspended from school and in panic Hattie bundles the kids into an old Ford Aerostar and sets out to try to find their father with only the vaguest information about his whereabouts.

This then is a coming of age story, a story of the road and a quest, a quest to find family and reaffirm the ties that bind us. It is also a celebration of the individual, both in the sense of the nonconformist (such a nicer word than 'dysfunctional') and in the sense of learning to take responsibility for oneself. Hattie fled to Paris to escape her sisters mental illness and the blight it cast over her childhood. Episodes where Min tried to drown her and tricked her into being encased in a total body plastercast so Min could go out when she was supposed to be minding Hattie, together with the death of their father, are stories that Hattie must come to terms with whilst on the road. She must also learn to stop running and take on adult responsibility, after all as Thebes says in relation to her relationship prospects

'Okay, twenty eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, though.'

One of the areas Hattie has to learn to navigate is that of parenthood. She is stuck in a van with a precocious 11 year old and an angry taciturn 15 year old whose form of communication seems to be carving words into the wood of the dashboard with a knife. Hattie is far more relaxed about this than I would be but she also has unique insight into the type of life they have been living with their mother and is aware of her limitations

'Conversing with children is a fine art, I realized. An art form that demands large amounts of honesty and misdirection. Or maybe discretion is a better word. Or a gradual release of information like time-controlled vitamins. Either way my own befuddled efforts were pathetic and I wanted to have more than odd, cryptic conversations with Logan and Thebes.'

Despite, or maybe because of, these limitations in the end Hattie allows Logan and Thebes the space to express what it is they need from the adults around them and Hattie comes to realise that you can take care of someone else but you cannot take responsibility for them, they have take responsibility for themselves, all you can do is support them. Perhaps her greatest gift to these children is making them understand that she is willing to support them but that they are not responsible for their mother or the way she feels, and they have to live their own lives, as must Min.

This makes the book sound terribly worthy, but the life lessons are applied lightly and the book careers along at the same speed as a Ford Aerostar. The occupants of the car spend their time like most families on a long journey, just passing the time

'Who would you rather have as a boyfriend? Frankenstein or George Bush?'

singing songs, creating art (Thebes' speciality is giant novelty cheques made out to the various members of her family and people she meets) and talking about their past and present. Toews has created a funny, engaging and grim tale which carries you along with it in search of the family of these unique and individual children.

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