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Miriam Toews hits the road 

Her energetic new novel The Flying Troutmans depicts an unlikely family trip.

Three for the road Miriam Toews' energetic new novel The Flying Troutmans depicts an unlikely family trip. Holly Gordon gets sucked into her characters' lives.

You wouldn't know Miriam Toews' voiceto hear it on the phone. Speaking from her home in Winnipeg, Toews' upbeat, quick-to-laugh demeanor is unexpected after reading her Governor General's award-winning A Complicated Kindnessor her newly released novel, The Flying Troutmans. Both novels have a dark comedic tone, the former dealing with one woman's experience in a stifling Mennonite community and the latter circling around a character coping with suicidal depression. Both, though, have the ability to make you laugh and cry. Toews says it's all about how you look at life.

"My own outlook on life, it's a tragic, comic thing," she says, with what sounds like a smile on the other end of the line. "I don't consciously set out to be funny or whatever, but I think it's just sort of a question or a matter of how I look at the world."

Humour is a defense Toews says she's used all her life, and it's a dry humour that comes naturally onto the page. Through dialogue that doesn't lend itself to quotation marks---she says it clutters the page---Toews expertly brings irony and brutal honesty to her characters' lips.

Originally from the mostly Mennonite community of Steinbach, Manitoba, Toews called Halifax home---with her family---for the '90-'91 school year while she took her one-year Bachelor of Journalism at King's College. She isn't a working journalist now---Toews writes novels full-time because she says she enjoys fiction and was never any good at "hustling or pitching ideas"---but has a burning memory from journalism school.

"There was this huge banner that said 'The deadline is not a suggestion,'" says Toews with a chuckle. "And it just scared the shit out of me every day."

Luckily for Toews, the banner isn't there anymore as she returns to her alma mater to read from The Flying Troutmanson Thursday, September 4 at Alumni Hall.

Troutmansis poignantly written, with characters so real they jump off the page. You'd never guess a novel about a depressed mother who can only drink milkshakes, an 11-year-old girl with purple hair and hygiene issues, a 15-year-old angsty boy with headphones growing out of his ears and an aunt rebounding from a dump-and-run-to-an-ashram would make you laugh, cry and tilt your head in wonderment.

"Yeah, so things have fallen apart," begins Hattie Troutman, the protagonist and rebounding aunt. Released four years after Kindness, Toews steps away from the static Mennonite community she addressed in Kindnessand focuses her character-driven writing on this road trip meant to keep a family from falling further apart.

"I've been wanting to write [a road trip story] for a long time," says Toews. She takes road trips every summer with her family, and has often driven the same path to North Dakota that the Troutmans take.

The first piece to fall for the family is when Hattie's Paris boyfriend leaves her and is "heading off to an ashram in India anyway, and said we could communicate telepathically." Then Hattie receives a call from Thebes asking her to please come home to Winnipeg to help take care of Thebes's mom and Hattie's sister, Min.

Having grown up with Min being in and out of psychiatric hospitals all her life, Hattie hops on a plane and helps admit a suicidal Min to yet another hospital. Needing a solution, Hattie decides the next best course of action is to pack Thebes, Logan---the basketball-loving nephew---a cooler, everyone's favourite CDs and Thebes' art supplies into the family's Aerostar van and drive to North Dakota in search of the kids' father, Cherkis.

Despite the opportunity for road trips to be a whack of fun, this trip has an added dimension: The three family members attempt to cope with their mother/sister being mentally ill. It's an issue Toews has dealt with---her father wrestled with bipolar disorder until he committed suicide in 1998 when he was 62. Although the issue of mental illness wasn't the force behind the novel, her father's illness was a drawing point for Min's personality.

Reaching the end of the family's wayward journey will make you wish the Aerostar's almost-flat tires would keep rolling for another hundred pages. The Troutmans don't fly: They simply soar. a


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