Irma Voth

  • Miriam Toews
  • Harper Collins
  • 272 pp.

In this witting and thoughtful coming-of-age story, a broken family struggles to heal, amid a Mennonite community in Mexico.

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

When my father selected a song for the father-daughter dance at my wedding, he chose “Daughter” by Loudon Wainwright III. For my father, it encompassed our relationship, both as I grew up and now that I am an adult. At one point, Wainwright sings “I lost every time I fought her.” As we danced, I joked to my father that he hadn’t lost every time — just often.

In Irma Voth, the 19-year-old eponymous protagonist is fighting her controlling father, and is losing. Banished to a house on her father’s land in their small Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, Irma is barred from seeing her mother and siblings: her father’s punishment after she eloped with a Mexican boy who turned out to be a narcotraficante who abandoned her shortly after marriage. Irma’s only companionship comes from Aggie, her 13-year-old sister who is herself beginning to rebel against their father and clandestinely seeks out Irma.

Into this insulated world comes a film crew intent on making a movie about Mennonites in Mexico. The crew hires Irma as a translator: she speaks English, Spanish and the Low German of Mennonite communities, allowing her to interpret the script for the film’s German star, Marijke. Suddenly, Irma finds herself exposed to a lively cast of characters from Mexico City, which renews her father’s wrath as he tries to stop Aggie from spending time with Irma or the film crew. The filmmakers’ arrival propels Irma toward adulthood and self-discovery, her mother’s words echoing in her mind: “Irma … just begin.”

Irma Voth is a witty and thoughtful coming-of-age story. The sarcastic protagonist observes the world in its all too stark reality, yet is afraid to truly engage until forced by extenuating circumstances. As the novel begins, Irma, in her late teens, sounds young. She misses playing like a child in the fields with her former husband, Jorge. She is mischievous, feeding Marijke wild and funny translations of what the film’s director has asked her to communicate.

But Irma matures as she spends more time with the film crew and responds to the actions of her father as he disciplines Aggie. She begins to ponder the real meaning of her estrangement from her parents and the sequence of events that led the family to its current, broken state. With this new understanding come heavy responsibilities as she takes aggressive measures to save Aggie — and herself — from her father, whose sole focus is total control.

Communicating the universal rebellion of children as they take their first tentative steps to adulthood, Toews presents sisters facing a father who stubbornly resists the idea of his children growing up, a battle that every parent and child seem to experience to varying degrees. Further, Toews skillfully creates the lives of Mennonite teens pushing against the boundaries of the limited life that’s been set for them, struggling against prescribed roles from which they yearn to break free.

Irma and Aggie’s relationship infuses Irma Voth with the heart needed to supplement Toews’ pithy and clever prose. Not only dealing with parent-child relationships, Toews also offers a touching and fully developed sisterhood, filled with cutting remarks, petty arguments, the turning of a blind eye when necessary and, most importantly, deep affection. As Irma finds her voice and guides Aggie in a similar yet less emotionally painful direction, we see that their bond was always too strong for their father to break.

Irma Voth is not without fault. It is difficult to believe that Irma and Aggie would not encounter harassment or questionable characters once Irma removes Aggie from her father’s reach and they move into the larger world. Yet, in this book, it seems that everyone outside the Mennonite community is nothing but kind and helpful. Machismo and street harassment — problems I often encountered as a 12-year-old in Mexico — happen only once in the novel. This same suspension of disbelief would be difficult anywhere: if, say, Irma and Aggie tried to make their way in Washington, D.C.

Yet this is a minor quibble. Irma Voth is a novel about parenthood and sisterhood, and about redefining those relationships as people grow. On this level, it succeeds tremendously.

It also contains one bit of wisdom that I can’t resist sharing: make a list of your sins, because “It’s good to have an itinerary, even if it only leads to hell.” Duly noted, Irma Voth.

Susana Olague Trapani is an aspiring fiction writer. An avid reader, she studied Latino literature at the University of Michigan and medieval/Renaissance English literature at the University of Toronto. In her day job, she is a writer with the American Red Cross.

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