Swing Low: A Life
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Swing Low: A Life

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  381 ratings  ·  59 reviews
One morning Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular schoolteacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression. With razor-sharp precision, "Swing Low" tell...more
Hardcover, 191 pages
Published December 5th 2001 by Arcade Publishing (first published January 1st 2000)
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Uncle
I will make a sign for my doorknob that reads: C’mon in, patient is already disturbed. - Miriam Toews, Swing Low.

In her family memoir Swing Low: A Life, Mennonite author Miriam Toews reconstructs the life and death of her father. It is a beautifully written book, yet one dealing with difficult subject matter: mental illness and suicide. Her memoir of her father’s life touches upon the ties of family and community, and the struggle between faith and despair.

Mel Toews (Miriam’s father) was a res...more
Clif Hostetler
This is a memoir of a man (Mel Toews) who suffered from life long bipolar disorder, commits suicide, and then tells his story from beyond the pale (i.e. beyond the grave). Do I have your attention yet? Obviously he couldn't write his memoir after committing suicide. But his memoir did get written in his own first person voice--by his daughter. The very concept causes me to shutter from its haunted poignancy.

The day before his suicide his daughter, Miriam, asked him what he was thinking. His answ...more
Nancy
This had to be an incredibly difficult book to write. Miriam, the protagonist's daughter, tried to get into his head and recreate thoughts he might have been having. She began at the end. The prologue is Mel's end. He committed suicide at the age of 62. Having taught school for 40 years, sustained a marriage and a life, hiding mental illness through his work and church devotion, he ended his life before dementia took his mind.

The first few chapters confused me a bit. They were circular and diffi...more
Edith
This was quite an amazing book. This (former Mennonite) gal is an excellent writer. In an unusual manner for a memoir, Miriam writes from her father's point of view; it took me a chapter or so to habitually think in the right frame of mind. When "he" writes about his state of mind (he was manic-depressive), it is actually Miriam writing what she surmised his state of mind might well have been. He was such a productive man in his manic phase, a 6th grade teacher, and yet when asked by his daughte...more
Lydia Presley
Original review posted here

Let me just say … I did not enjoy Irma Voth – the fiction novel that Miriam Toews wrote and I reviewed just a few weeks ago. So it was with some trepidation that I picked Swing Low up off my shelf.

I was blown away.

Seriously, this book was nothing at all like Irma Voth. It was clear, concise, and a beautiful tribute to her father. Miriam’s voice, as she speaks from her father’s point of view, is crystal clear, heart-breaking and filled with love. I never once got the se...more
Heather
I won a copy of this book through a giveaway on Goodreads. At the time I received it, I couldn't remember having signed up for it, or why I might have, although after having read the back cover description it seemed fitting that I should win this. I too lost my father to suicide, and Miriam's writing mirrored a lot of what we went through, things my dad said (or didn't say). That same helplessness, the feeling of not being good enough, or not having done enough for the people in his life, was so...more
Claire Cameron
I love Miriam Toews' writing and this was one of my favourite of her books, but I admit to be biased. I wrote more about it on my blog - http://www.claire-cameron.com/completely-biased-reviews-swing-low-by-miriam-toews/
Darren Tang
Swing Low: A Life. The title says it all, doesn't it? An autobiographical novel written in the first person through a third party persepective. This novel had no climax, no twists, no turns; it was simply the catharsis Toews uses in order to better understand her own fathers suicide. Although the novel delves deep into depression as a clinical disease, there are moments and emotions that stand out. Love. His marriage to his ever loving wife is something that should be rejoiced. In the end, this...more
Jennie
I appreciate the different perspective this story brings us – the inner mind of a manic depressive as he spirals towards suicide. I felt his confusion and desperate desire to be someone other than who he was, yet I found myself skimming the last half of the book. The book was full of emotion, regret and longing but for me it just got lost in the presentation. There were no quotations and it felt as it if the book was one long never-ending paragraph. This was probably intentional, a way to show t...more
Trevor
I've been trying to think of a way to describe this book. I think the only thing I can really say is "profound".

Basically, the book is a recounting of Mel Toews' life, written by his daughter, but from his point of view. It is a graceful story of growing up, dating, getting married, becoming a school teacher, and having kids all in a small, conservative Mennonite town. But it is so much more than that!
Mel suffers from bipolar disorder (then called manic depression). In the present of the book, h...more
Dot
I expected to find this book sad or depressing but that was definitely not the case.

The subject matter of this memoir is a serious one. The author writes about the life of her father, Mel Toews, who was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder as a young man, and in spite of this disability, went on to become a respected and well loved elementary schoolteacher, father and member of the Mennonite Church in Steinbach, Manitoba.

Mel seemed to be able to channel his mania into being a creative schoolteacher,...more
Buchstabentraeume
Mit ihrem Buch „Mr T., der Spatz und die Sorgen der Welt“ hat Miriam Toews etwas in meinen Augen ganz Wunderbares geschaffen und geschafft: Sie lässt ihren bereits verstorbenen Vater, der zu Hause jahrelang geschwiegen hat, noch einmal zu Wort kommen, lässt ihn ganz in Ruhe über sein Leben reflektieren und gibt ihm somit die Chance zu erkennen, wie lebenswert sein Leben tatsächlich war.

Er erzählt von seinen Krankenhausaufenthalten mit seinen Schwestern und Ärzten und den anderen Patienten ebenso...more
Erin
Going into Swing Low, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve read memoirs, but never about someone other than the author. That sort of book, I’d always assumed, was called a biography. But Swing Low is certainly not the latter. Toews has written her father’s story through his own eyes, as she pieced together and imagined it herself.

The resulting portrait is of a deeply complex man: a Mennonite husband, father, teacher and friend who adored his job and family but struggled daily with bipolar disorder...more
Julia
I think this book is incredible! It is Toews's memoir of her father's life, published in Canada a decade ago but being released for the first time in the United States. It is written in her father's voice, a brave choice and very convincing. Her father, Mel, the book's narrator, lived with bipolar disorder since the age of seventeen. As the book opens he is lying in a local hospital that lacks a psychiatric staff, scrambling to write notes on a legal pad that will make sense of his situation and...more
McGuffy Morris
Miriam Toews wrote the memoir of her father's life. She writes this from his perspective, in his voice. This is amazing, especially given his lifelong struggle with depression and bipolar disorder.

Mel Toews is much loved by his family and friends. He is also a beloved and popular teacher, as well as a devout member of his Mennonite community. From her father's viewpoint, we are able to see and feel depression and bipolar struggles. We experience his daily battle to balance illness with reality....more
Erica
We're publishing this in pb in the US this fall, coinciding with the publication by harper hardcover of miriam's new novel. I read a complicated kindness a long time ago and always meant to read more of her work. Swing Low is an interesting hybrid--ostensibly, it's a memoir of miriam's father's depression. But though it's written by miriam, with the exception of the first and last part it's written from her father's point of view. Before I started, I thought that this would be off-putting or har...more
Mojgan
Mel’s story ended with him taking his life. Mel struggled with life. He struggled with eggs. But for me what stood out the most was his struggle to be good. Mel felt that the struggle to be good was the purpose of life. Certainly of his life.

I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to read Swing Low. I think for me, my struggle in life is also to be good. For the past year I’ve been pre-occupied with not getting by. With being happy. But it just makes sense to struggle for goodness. I wake up eve...more
Dnicebear
I really needed this book. It's the life story of a Mennonite man who suffered from manic depression. His daughter wrote it after he, somewhere around age 60, lay down in front of an oncoming train and died. She must have poured over her father's copious notes as well as re-lived many incidents in her own life and then got into her father's skin so well you'd think he wrote it. Once I got to the end I was left hanging because, while it is the man's story, I was closely attached to the mother and...more
Joel
This was a great book. Toews' strength really is her creative nonfiction, and this is very creative nonfiction -- a memoir of her father, written by her in his voice. It's the remarkable story of a man trying to recollect the events of his life during a nervous breakdown. Toews is careful with her father's life, writing in a voice that is somehow simultaneously his and her own. One really gets to feel like Mel Toews was a kind and even happy person, despite his lifelong battle with depression. H...more
Irene
I adored Miriam Toews' "A Complicated Kindness" and the movie that was made from her book "The Flying Troutmans", so I was interested to read this book, which is a biography of her father written from his first person perspective. Not the usual biography. He took his own life in his early 60's after a lifetime of living with bipolar disorder. Towards the end he was hospitalized and during this period he found it helpful to recall episodes from his past, which his daughter wrote down. After his d...more
Simon
Reading Darkness Visible led me to this book. I'd read Complicated Kindness but didn't know about this memoir. I resisted the narrative structure for a page or two. It's a first person narration, told from the point of view of Miriam Toews' father, though of course, written by Miriam Toews. But she calls it a memoir because she's done all she can to embody her father, to stay close to the facts and to an honest conception of how he experienced things. Once it was rolling though, I didn't think a...more
Louise
Swing Low, is a memoir about living with manic depression for many years. The author is writing in the first person as her father. Her father was a gifted teacher and functioned well in the classroom, but the depression took it's toll on his marriage and his children.

The book concludes with her father's suicide on the day he went home from the hospital and walked onto the train tracks in front of an oncoming train.

Although the subject matter itself is depressing, I learned a great deal about ho...more
MrsPL
I thought this was an amazing book. The first few chapters are a bit confusing and circular, and you don't have a good grasp on the story or the characters, but then it draws you in. It just seemed so honest and real a story about the experience of depression, both how it was experienced by the main character and by his family. A very touching and poignant picture of what he may have felt and thought over the course of his life and in the days leading up to his suicide. I can't imagine writing t...more
Arlie
Toews' beautiful and compassionate memoir of her father's life is a story that enters your heart. Mel Toews struggled with what was then known as manic-depression, and Toews recounts his moments of achievement, of love, and of the pressure and darkness that would envelope him. I was reminded of Kaye Gibbons' novel (the title escapes me at the moment) of a girl whose mother had the same highs and lows. Toews looks back on her father and his struggles with pride and love. It was a book that made m...more
Anna Penner
This was a fantastic book. The writing was lovely, and provided such detail and insight into a life that was both beautiful and incredibly sad. It was impossible to have anything but sympathy for the man it described, and difficult to remember that the words were not his. I can only read this book as a loving and brave act by his youngest daughter, the author, to understand her father and continue his story.
Gloria
This book is about Miriam's father, who suffered from manic depression most of his life. Yet, he was a very successful school teacher for many years, putting much energy and creativity into his lessons in a small school in Steinbach, Manitoba. The book is written in a very interesting way, as if her father is telling the story while in a hospital room after a nervous breakdown, near the end of his life.
Courtney Coover
What a task of love to write this book and tell her father's story! The book will make you laugh and cry but also shares the story of her father's mental illness with profound dignity. With grace Miriam Toews uses her father's words and life view to share his strengths and struggles and has her own story as his daughter waiting in the back row.
Mandy
I can honestly say that this is the best book I have ever read.
The brutal honesty in which the author examines her father's life is at times a joy and a heartache to read. This book has taught me so much, about mental illness, but more about life in general. Everyone should read this book. I guarentee you will not be untouched by it.
Sarah
Just fantastically sad and brilliant. I love Miriam Toews and I feel so awful for her family to have lost her father at a relatively young age (63-ish?) to suicide. She writes from his point of view after sorting through his many years of notes as an obsessive recorder and manic depressive. I could not put this down.
Judy
I thought this book was fiction while I was reading it, for it is written by a female novelist and it is a memoir of a man, told in the first person. But I sorted it all out near the end. It was very sensitively written, about a man who must have been in many ways mysterious, even though he was the author's father.
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Miriam Toews is a Canadian writer of Mennonite descent. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba and has lived in Montreal and London, before settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Toews studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of King's College in Halifax, and has also worked as a freelance newspaper and radio journalist. Her non-fiction book "Swing Low: A Life" was a memoir of her father, a vi...more
More about Miriam Toews...
A Complicated Kindness The Flying Troutmans Irma Voth Summer of My Amazing Luck A Boy of Good Breeding

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“Perhaps depression is caused by asking oneself too many unanswerable questions.” 55 likes
“She was becoming sad. There is no joy involved in following others' expectations of yourself” 25 likes
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