If you want to find Miriam Toews-related sites in Steinbach, you have to do a bit of research. There are no plaques or statues. Nothing. A while ago, my husband Andrew Unger, who writes the Daily Bonnet, was quoted in the New Yorker saying, “I think that if she had become an N.H.L. hockey star rather than one of Canada’s foremost writers, there would be a sign on the edge of town saying, ‘Welcome to Steinbach, Home of Miriam Toews.’ ”
So, yeah, I think it will be quite some time before Steinbach etches quotes from A Complicated Kindness into the sidewalks like they’ve done with Ulysses in Dublin. (Haha.) However, if you’d like to do a literary tour of Miriam Toews-related Steinbach locations, I’ve done the research for you!
Perhaps her most Steinbach-related works are Swing Low, the biography she wrote about her father Melvin Toews, and A Complicated Kindness, where she fictionalizes Steinbach as “East Village”. (A note on the term “East Village”: I suspect the name was chosen because Steinbach was the eastern-most village of an area that once was called the East Reserve. It’s also the name of the area of New York City where Nomi Nickel wants to live. East Village is also mentioned in All My Puny Sorrows.) Most of the locations on this tour are from those two books.
You can start this tour wherever you would like, but I’ve started it at MJ’s Kafé on Main Street, right across from the MCC Thrift Store. I’ve even created a handy map for you at the bottom of this post. Most of the locations are within a couple blocks of Main Street, except for the L.A. Barkman Park and the Steinbach Regional Secondary School. If you’re starting at MJ’s, you could begin your tour with breakfast, or finish your tour in the same spot and have a delicious Mennonite lunch!
- MJ’s Kafé – Although MJ’s Kafé opened just as Miriam Toews was leaving town, it’s a must-stop for Mennonite food in Steinbach, and Miriam is known to frequent it when she’s in town. From The New Yorker: “In Steinbach, we stopped at MJ’s Kafé for Mennonite comfort food. Toews ordered vereniki, chewy white dumplings filled with white cottage cheese and covered in a thick white sauce called schmauntfat, with a hard split sausage on the side.”
- EMC Church – A very short distance southeast of MJ’s is the Steinbach Evangelical Mennonite Church. (This is also the headquarters of the EMC conference.) Toews depicts East Village as a one-church town, which Steinbach isn’t, but this is the church she was referring to in her work, pastored by Nomi Nickel’s uncle, “The Mouth.” Steinbach was founded by EMC (then called Kleine Gemeinde) pioneers in 1874. Unfortunately, the original church building was destroyed by fire in 1960. *Stops 3 and 4 are a little out of the way and can be skipped if time or transportation is an issue.
- Steinbach Regional Secondary School – Follow Barkman Avenue southwest until you reach the Steinbach Regional Secondary School on McKenzie Ave. Toews graduated here in 1982. (So did I! In 1996!) Opened in the early 1970s, the building has expanded considerably since Toews’ time; the eastern half of the current building is where she attended. “Mr. Quiring,” of A Complicated Kindness fame, taught here… as does a certain Daily Bonnet author!
- L.A. Barkman Park – Cross McKenzie Avenue and head west until you reach Giesbrecht Street. Then head north a couple blocks until you reach L.A. Barkman Park. This is one of the few Steinbach landmarks that Toews left with its actual name. See that hill there? That’s the famous “Abe’s Hill” named after Steinbach mayor A.D. Penner. (There’s also a park named after him on the other side of town.) “On the way to Abe’s Hill, I passed The Mouth and his wife going for a bike ride.”
- Pioneer Cemetery – Head over to Reimer Avenue, cross Brandt Street, and then venture a couple blocks to the Pioneer Cemetery. This beautiful cemetery is Steinbach’s first. Many of Steinbach’s pioneers, who Toews is descended from, are buried here. A cairn lists all of Steinbach’s original 18 families.
- Rouge Cinema – Keep following Reimer Avenue until you are back on Main Street. You’ll see the large Steinbach Credit Union building in front of you. On the corner (Main and Lumber) stood the original location of the Keystone Cinema, which Toews calls “Rouge Cinema.” (The Keystone Cinema actually still exists in a new location a block further north.) After The Mouth “closed down the bar and the bus depot and the pool hall and the swimming pool,” for some reason, “the only thing he couldn’t take down was the Rouge Cinema but I was never sure why not.”
- Main Street. – You are standing on Main Street. Toews talks a lot about Main Street in A Complicated Kindness. “Main Street is as dead as ever. There’s a blinding white light at the water-tower end of it…” You should be able to see the water tower if you look southeast down Main Street. There are no Jesus billboards on Main Street like she describes, but you may have passed a couple on Highway 12 as you drove into town. She also says, “Main Street is book-ended by two fields of dirt that never grow a crop.” If you walk to either end of Main Street, you’ll see that this is more-or-less still true.
- William Avenue and First Street – Head northwest up Main Street, passing Steinbach Dodge (or “Dyck Dodge” as Toews calls it) until you reach William Avenue. It looks almost like an alleyway, so be careful, you might miss it. In Swing Low, Toews writes how her father Melvin Toews took William Avenue every day on his way to work (which we’ll see later). Follow William until you reach 1st Street. Miriam Toews’ early years were spent on a house (229 First Street) between William and Friesen. She writes in Swing Low about how her father was pressured to sell the property to a local auto dealer. If you walk down 1st Street behind the car lot you can see the remnants of a few driveways where houses once stood. One of these belonged to the Toews family.
- 58 Brandt Street – If you’re standing on the corner of William and 1st, you’ll see a small path through a green space. Take it and head to Brandt Street. Brandt Street, or Highway 12, is a busy four-lane street, so be careful if you choose to cross. Miriam Toews’ home, circa A Complicated Kindness, is number 58 Brandt, on the opposite side of the highway. You can see that it was not too far from her house on 1st Street. Toews opens A Complicated Kindness: “I live with my father Ray Nickel in that low brick bungalow on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great.” The actual house has a blue door. This is a private residence, so if you’re taking pictures, please be respectful.
- Vinyl Experience – Head back to the corner of Main and Brandt and stop by at Vinyl Experience. Toews makes frequent reference to rock music in A Complicated Kindness. Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, James Taylor, and especially Lou Reed. Thankfully, East Village no longer has such negative views towards this kind of thing and even is home to a fabulous vinyl music store. I happen to know that owner Phil Wiens is a big Lou Reed fan. Seriously.
- Elmdale School – Keep following Highway 12/Brandt Street (don’t worry, there are nice sidewalks) until you reach Elmdale Drive. As you walk, you’ll see Elmdale School, where Melvin Toews taught. From The New Yorker: “‘That’s Elmdale School, where my dad taught,’ Toews said, as we drove by a building so squat it seemed nearly sunken.”
- Elmdale Street – You may have noticed a sign saying “Historic Stony Brook”. Elmdale Street is a lovely street running parallel to the now-dry Steinbach creek that gave the city its name (Steinbach means “Stony Brook” in German). You will also find plaques marking the spots of all the original Steinbach pioneers, including Toews’ ancestors.
- Jake Epp Library – Follow Elmdale Street until you reach the Jake Epp Library. Melvin Toews was instrumental in founding this library. Outside the building is a small Melvin Toews Reading Garden and inside the building is a plaque dedicated to him. Nearby is the Helena Loewen Garden. Helena Loewen was Miriam Toews’ maternal grandmother. This is the same Loewen family of Loewen Windows fame.
- Bethesda Hospital – Walk northeast up Reimer Avenue until you reach the Bethesda Hospital. Miriam Toews was born here. Much of Swing Low is set here.
If you’re interested in a more general historic walking tour of Steinbach, you can download a walking tour on the City of Steinbach website. It doesn’t include anything about Miriam Toews, however…