1. Swing Low is a portrait of a human
life but also of a small town at a particular point in time. What
factors do you think may have exacerbated Mel's struggle with
bipolar disorder? Consider, for instance, traditional gender roles,
aspects of the Mennonite religion and the treatment of mental
2. At the beginning of the book, Mel describes his writing as a
"series of jerky stills, courtesy of my renegade mind." How would
you describe the symptoms of bipolar disorder based on Mel's
account of his life and inner world? How is his mental state
occasionally revealed in the way in which he expresses himself?
3. What role does the idea of home play in
Swing Low? Consider, for instance, Mel's
recurring dream, his feelings toward his pink house, his memories
from childhood and his description of depression as "not feeling at
home in this world."
4. What is the author's role in the book outside of the brief
prologue and epilogue? How would you characterize the relationship
between Miriam and her father based on Mel's account?
5. For those who have read A Complicated
Kindness, what similarities and differences do
you see between Mel and Ray? Elvira and Trudie? Steinbach and East
6. What is the relationship between loss and knowledge in both
Swing Low and A Complicated
Kindness? Discuss the ways in which Mel Toews and Nomi
Nickel value words. How do they use humour?
7. What significance do flowers, sunshine and travel have in the
book? How does Mel occasionally move toward freedom? How does he
resist it? Discuss the moments in which Elvira inspires him with
her courage and high spirits.
8. Mel writes: "I vacillated wildly between thinking everything
mattered, that every word, every action, every task was important,
to thinking that nothing at all mattered, that everything was
futile." Also: "I felt there was no hope for the world, that evil
would inevitably triumph over good, and that there was, therefore,
no point in striving for goodness. And yet I also felt that the
struggle to be good was the purpose of life. Certainly of my life."
What contradictions does Mel negotiate throughout his life?
9. "I'm sixty-two years old and still wanting my mother to hold
me in her arms just once and tell me that she loves me." Does Mel
ever forgive his mother? Does he at least achieve some measure of
10. Swing Low has been called a
"genre-bender." What qualities of the book strike you as
characteristic of fiction, of creative non-fiction and of