Author: Miriam Toews
First published: 2004
Locale: East Village, Manitoba, Canada
Plot: Coming-of-age drama
Time: The 1980s
Nomi Nickel, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her beloved father, Ray, in the small Mennonite town of East Village in Manitoba, Canada. She is about to graduate from high school early and is bored, restless, and depressed about her limited future options. After first her older sister and then her mother abandons the family, Nomi fantasizes that they will someday be reunited in the more exotic East Village in New York City, a place that has taken on mythical connotations in her mind. Fearful that her defiant sister will be condemned to hell, Nomi can neither wholly conform to nor completely rebel against the strict standards of the Mennonite church. Instead, she flounders in a haze of alcohol, drugs, and sexual awakening.
Trudie Nickel, Nomi's mother and the sister of the town's pastor. Trudie has green eyes but insists that they are hazel. She is not entirely comfortable in the restrictive role of a married woman in Mennonite society, but she seems willing to endure for the sake of her family until her eldest daughter, Tash, reaches a breaking point and leaves town with Trudie's blessing. Trudie recognizes that Tash has the same free spirit she herself repressed years ago and cannot bear to see her daughter's potential similarly stifled. A few months after Tash departs, Trudie also disappears, leaving her husband and Nomi to mourn.
Ray Nickel, a schoolteacher, Trudie's husband and second cousin, and the father of Nomi and Tash. He has the same green eyes as Trudie. Ray is devoted to the church and community as well as to his vibrant, independent wife and daughters, a conflict that becomes increasingly difficult to handle as his wife and daughters risk excommunication. Ray copes with Trudie's and Tash's departures by emptying the house of furniture and surreptitiously cleaning the town dump at night.
Tash Nickel, Nomi's older sister. More outwardly rebellious and inquisitive than Nomi, Tash constantly questions the teachings of the church and ultimately concludes that she is an atheist. She openly displays her defiance by piercing her ears and giving herself a homemade tattoo. Riddled with contrasts, Tash is tender toward Nomi yet impatient with her un-questioning beliefs, and she fails to consider the effect her absence will have on the younger sister who admires her so much.
Hans Rosenfeldt, Trudie's brother and Nomi's uncle, who serves as the pastor of East Village's church and therefore the leader of the community. An unyielding authority figure, Hans does not hesitate to threaten his own family members with excommunication if they flout his increasingly strict rules.
Mr. Quiring, Nomi's teacher, who initially seems sympathetic to Nomi's school and family troubles. He soon loses patience with Nomi's argumentativeness and kicks her out of class on more than one occasion, possibly jeopardizing her ability to graduate.
Travis, Nomi's boyfriend, with whom she has sex for the first time. Travis often fantasizes about seeing the world and asks Nomi if she would consider moving to Paris or Montreal with him. He and Nomi frequently argue about inconsequential matters, perhaps as a symptom of their mutual dissatisfaction.
Lydia Voth, a friend of Nomi whose family moved to East Village from Paraguay. She is in the hospital due to a mysterious illness that makes the slightest physical touch painful to her. Because Lydia does not judge her and makes few demands, Nomi finds her presence soothing and visits her often, acting as an advocate for Lydia with some of the more unsympathetic hospital staff.
Mrs. Peters, Nomi's neighbor, a widow who lost her four-year-old son in an accidental drowning years before. Mrs. Peters finds comfort in measuring Nomi's life against the one her son would have had. Nomi senses and responds to Mrs. Peters's kindness, observing that she seems to be merely marking time until she can join her family in the afterlife.
The Golden Comb, the local drug dealer who sells to many of the Mennonite teenagers. Known only by his nickname, the Golden Comb is notable in East Village for living by his own rules and not caring what others think. At one point he hints to Nomi that he will consider accepting sexual favors in exchange for drugs.