Culture | Troutmans fly off the handle

Miriam Toews writes the highs and lows of dysfunctional family life

Welcome to the wacky world of the Troutman family – or, as the 12-year-old Troutman daughter would say, “Welcome homeys.”

In her newest novel, The Flying Troutmans, Governor General Award winner Miriam Toews introduces us to characters that are both original and comedic. With characters like the purple-haired daughter of the family, Thebes, and her dark and rebellious brother, Logon, Toews has the ability to perfectly capture the complications of growing up in an utterly dysfunctional family.

The book begins with a phone call that forces narrator Hattie to quit her exciting life in Paris and return to her roots in Manitoba. Upon arrival, Hattie faces what she has been running away from her whole life: her sister Min has fallen into another “episode” triggered by her chronic depression. Though she is completely unqualified for the job, Hattie becomes a surrogate parent to her sister’s two children, Thebes and Logon.

Rather than dealing with Min, Hattie decides to flee. “If she was again at a point where she wanted to die, where she was begging me to help her die, then there was no point in keeping [our father] at bay. What difference did it make?” And so, the threesome jams into the family Volvo and escapes to California in search of Hattie and Min’s father, giving Min the final choice to live for her family or give up once and for all.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is the unique writing style and strange lack of punctuation. Rather than using quotation marks, Toews narrates the book through the eyes of Hattie. While nothing about this writing technique or the lives of the characters is what we would classify as “normal,” Toews has a distinct style that captures the unique and charismatic qualities of each character.

Even Min, who we meet only through flashbacks and anecdotes, has a strong presence in the book. One anecdote recounts the time that Min reluctantly agreed to go hunting with her uncle, and then, rather than breaking the plans, tried to kill herself to avoid killing an animal. It is no surprise that her family is as dysfunctional as they are.

While the novel begins with the line, “Yeah, so things have fallen apart,” the road trip develops into an opportunity for the three characters to overcome the constraints of Min’s disease and rebuild their family on their own terms.

From encounters with wacky characters to stopovers in hazy drug-infested hotels, the Troutman family embarks on a quirky mission that proves to be anything but simple. Although their relationship appears completely deranged, in the end one comes to realize that, given the Troutmans’ situation, chaos is the only thing that keeps them together.

The Flying Troutmans is 322 pages long and available in hardcover from Random House for $32.