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Swing Low: A Life

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,085 ratings  ·  121 reviews
“Audacious, original and profoundly moving . . . . Healing is a likely outcome of a book imbued with the righteous anger, compassion and humanity of Swing Low.” —Globe and Mail (Canada)Reverberating with emotional power, authenticity, and insight, Swing Low is Miriam Toews's daring and deeply affecting memoir of her father’s struggle with manic depression in a small Mennon ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published September 6th 2011 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published January 1st 2000)
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4.12  · 
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 ·  1,085 ratings  ·  121 reviews

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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
David Townsend
Jun 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
There are no windows within the dark house of depression through which to see others, only mirrors.
Clif Hostetler
Dec 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
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
Jul 18, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: canadian-author
"There are no windows within the dark house of depression through which to see others, only mirrors."
I found this to be the most telling sentence of what it must be like to be fully and deeply depressed.

This is a lovely tribute to one's father. It's warmly, lovingly and tenderly told, with understanding and compassion. It's beautiful in this context.

Mel's story is a remarkable one. His life was successful in every way: a job he loved, a wife he loved, a family he loved, friends he enjoyed......
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Toews is one of my favorites, and when reading this, one really feels the struggle of a family member with manic depression - it's not easy for anyone - the person experiencing it, the spouse and caregiver, the children at any age.

As important as this book felt (especially to Toews as she writes this from her father's imaginary perspective), this was incredibly hard to read. Not because it was such a hard subject, but the start-stop of the writing. Toews flips from her father's past to present
Allison ༻hikes the bookwoods༺
Miriam Toews wrote this memoir from her father's perspective as a tribute to him after he took his own life. To show the value of his life when he considered himself worthless. While I appreciate what she was trying to do here, and that it was also a means to her own healing, there wasn't as much insight into living with bipolar disorder as I had hoped. I feel like the reader may have garnered more information, and emotion too, if the book was written from her own perspective.
Mar 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: march-2017, borrowed
I very much enjoy Toews' fiction, and whilst Swing Low, which is a fictionalised memoir of her father, is a step away from what I am used to in her work, I am pleased to report that it was rather wonderful. The approximation of her father's own voice feels both candid and believable. Very engrossing and darkly comic, thoughtful and moving, Swing Low is ultimately a very loving tribute.
Sep 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Lydia Presley
Sep 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011, non-fiction, memoirs
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
C Valeri
Mar 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Wow this book was really heartbreaking at the same time it was uplifting and hilarious. Not to be undertaken lightly! But a really beautiful story and nice tribute to her dad. TJ you may like this book!
May 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Prompted to read this because of a profile of Toews in the New Yorker and buzz about her latest novel. This is a lightly fictionalized memoir of her father, who was outwardly an upstanding citizen and dynamic teacher but inwardly deeply depressed and in the end committed suicide. Not a depressing book, but deeply, deeply sad.
B. Mason
I was first drawn to this book because of the challenge of a daughter writing in her father's voice. With characteristic elegance, Miriam Toews reveals the humor and tragedy of her father's life. And in a few beautiful moments in the book, her voice breaks into his and, far from being jarring, captures intense love and grief.
Nov 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"There are no windows within the dark house of depression through which to see others, only mirrors."

(loc. 2625)
Jan 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, memoir
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
Oct 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 -
Joey Comeau
Dec 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recommendations
Miriam Toews has written a book about her father's life and suicide. She has written it, however, as a novel, and in the first person from his perspective. It is completely unsentimental and yet beautiful.
Oct 25, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Miriam Toews memoir of her father's struggle with manic depression in a small Mennonite community is astounding. Written from her father's perspective the book is both beautiful and sad. I would recommend it to anyone.
Mar 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Very, very sad but also very, very funny in a lot of ways. Well written, easy to read and very likable narrator. Didn't think I would like this book as much as I did--not usually a fan of Canadian lit but this was great.
Tender. Sad. Funny. Beautiful.
"I’m a methodical man so this business re: losing my mind is frustrating,” he writes. And: “Perhaps depression is caused by asking oneself too many unanswerable questions.”

If you or someone you love deals with mental illness, you know how honest this 'memoir' is. The outside person and the inside. The ironic opposite that places the public face as the strong one, and saves personal home settings for the illness to unbuckle.
Polite truths, sweet spirit, dry humour, honest reflection, routine trig
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
A moving, eloquent, and deeply affecting book. I will be seeking out other books by Miriam Toews.

The author's father, Mel Toews, was a loving father, a faithful Mennonite, and a gifted & much-admired teacher. And he suffered from bipolar disorder. One morning when he was in his 60's, he went for a walk and deliberately stepped in front of a train, killing himself.

In Swing Low, Miriam tries to make sense of her father's suicide by writing the story of his life as if from his own journals. Rea
Apr 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: rc2019
The absolute strength of this book is that it feels like Melvin Toews is the one writing it. The voice is clear as a bell as it bounces between the present day where he is hospitalized before taking his own life and the past where he tells the story up to the present.

I am constantly amazed and humbled by Miriam Toews' writing. I love her work though the subject matter is not the cheeriest. I think her subjects of mental illness, depression and suicide are vital to discuss in open and validating
May 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a memoir written by the daughter of the main character. I thought it was a very sweet story in the way she wrote about how she thought her father felt dealing with his manic depression since he was young. Even though I knew how the book was going to end as soon as I started it, I still cried while reading the last few pages. It was very touching and I come from a family that has dealt with depression and suicides and her story helped paint the beautiful but difficult life of her father. ...more
Joanne Seitz
Jun 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I gave this 5 stars because I loved the character - Toews' father. The book is a wonderful description of bipolar disorder afflicting a (generally) lovely person. Perhaps not the best book for people looking for a good novel, but a great read for anyone looking to understand this form of mental illness. Also, Toews is a terrific writer.
Jun 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Really good book, Miriam Toews does not disappoint. I love the way she writes. This is of course a very emotional book, but what a way to honour her father and bring about alternative perspectives to mental health in a society that drastically needs these alternative perspectives and validating people are they are.
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A compassionately written biography. Toews does a remarkable job of sensitively articulating her father’s mental health struggles with bipolar disorder; evoking such empathy from the reader. To share his life so delicately even though you know those who loved him must have suffered from his illness, especially the author herself, is a true literary, human feat.
May 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book for its compassionate and poignant view of the author's father. Written from his voice, I was offered an understanding of what goes on underneath the external appearance or behavior. I applaud Ms. Towes for her beautiful work and what it must have taken for her, as the writer and daughter to piece together this story.
Always such unique, splendid prose from Toews. This, being non-fiction, more heart-rending than her fiction somehow. I fear I am him. I fear my children talk to my partner as his did to his. I fear I, in my desperate depression, am causing her emotion dive.
It hits too close to home yet I cannot help but love it. And cry, cry, cry, cry.
John Senner
Oct 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Miriam Toews' father was a silent, closed, man at home but an exuberant elementary school teacher and community activist away from home. When he kills himself by stepping in front of a train, his daughter attempts to reconstruct his life and let him narrate it from his hospital bed. Part of the problem is the Mennonite culture of "not talking about it."
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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
“Perhaps depression is caused by asking oneself too many unanswerable questions.” 128 likes
“Her faith in a loving and forgiving God is strong, but she worships laughter.” 7 likes
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