As dysfunctional families go the Troutmans are particularly so. Hattie, the narrator, hasn't really got her life together - she's been living in Paris, mostly to get away from her sister, Min, but when Min's 11-year-old daughter Thebes calls and begs her to come home, there's not much to prevent it. Min, who's spent large parts of her life as an elective mute, will no longer get out of bed or talk, and needs to be in hospital, but Thebes and her older brother Logan are desperate not to go into foster care.
Thebes and Logan may be troubled kids, but they are used to having to care for each other, and for Min, so they're actually nice, with lots of redeeming features, although these aren't necessarily evident to many of the people around them, like teachers and neighbours. Hattie's had a similarly difficult background (she thinks Min tried to drown her once) so she mostly understands the reasons, if not always the actions. She's inexperienced at parenting though: "Do you ever wash?...Am I supposed to tell you to?" she inquires of Thebes, who has acquired a coating of crud - tears and candyfloss and tattoo transfers and general dirt - that makes her look as as if she has "some weird skin disease".
Hattie decides that they should look for the children's father, Cherkis, who was pretty much driven out by Min. She doesn't know exactly where he is, but he was least heard of in a town in South Dakota, so they'll take the unreliable van and head there, something made easier by Logan's expulsion from school. The journey takes up most of the book and, of course, as a metaphor it works on a number of levels as they all undergo voyages of self-discovery, and we learn the more about them as they look back into the past and Hattie tries to unravel the family history for the two children, and to show them that both their parents can love them, even if their father chooses to be absent and their mother chooses to die.
For me The Flying Troutmans
seems haunted by another book, Marian Engel's Lunatic Villas
, whose protagonist is another Harriet (I can't believe that the name is not an acknowledgement from Toews, even more so since in another of Engel's books the main character is Minn). Lunatic Villas
is also full of dysfunctional families and precocious children - I can see both the lovely Simeon and the more troubled Mickle in Logan. Reviewing it in 2007, I said that "every parent knows that the weird and ridiculous are part and parcel of the process of bringing up children" and it's true here too, as Engel and Toews share an insight into the best and worst aspects of family life that enriches and enlightens. LV
marked the beginning of my love affair with Canadian literature and its presence in the background resonates and complements this book. Until now I haven't loved Toews as much as I (and other people!) thought I should, but this is a stunning piece of writing and I know that it will be alternating with Lunatic Villas
for re-reads from now on.