Miriam Toews has been a superstar in Canadian literature for many years, perhaps best known for her novels A Complicated Kindness (2004) and All My Puny Sorrows (2014), both of which involve characters heavily influenced by ties to their rigid Mennonite upbringing. Toews, herself born into a small Mennonite colony in Steinbach, Manitoba that she left at age eighteen, does not shy away from depicting in her fiction the inflicted guilt, shame, and severity of life in that community. Now with Women Talking, her eighth book, Toews delivers her most damning portrayal yet of the Mennonite community and its devastating impact, most particularly on the lives of its girls and women.
The novel begins with an author’s note regarding the genesis of the story: between 2005 and 2009, hundreds of girls and women in the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia were drugged and raped by male members of the colony. Some in the community dismissed the attacks as imaginary, while others explained them away as the work of demons or God’s punishment of the women for their sins. Eight men from the colony were eventually convicted and went to prison for the crimes.
In a fictionalized version of the Bolivian colony set in North America and called the Molotschna Colony (incidentally, the name of the Russian Mennonite settlement founded in the 19th century from which the Bolivian colonists and Toews herself descend), Women Talking imagines what might have transpired among the traumatized women in the time between the men’s arrests and their return after being bailed out of jail by Bishop Peters and other male members of the colony.
Eight of Molotschna’s women, all survivors of the attacks, meet in a hayloft on June 6 and 7, 2009 to talk about their options. They can do nothing, as some women in the colony have chosen to do; they can stay and fight when the men return; or they can leave. Each option presents significant complications and potential consequences, and the women have two days only to determine their future. If they stay in Molotschna, they will be “given the opportunity to forgive these men,” and in so doing, secure their place in heaven. If they do not forgive, they will be cast out of the colony and out of God’s good grace.
At the request of the outspoken spinster Ona Friesen, the minutes of the meetings are taken by August Epp, the novel’s narrator and a formerly excommunicated member of the colony who has recently returned as a lowly schoolteacher for Molotschna’s boys and young men. The girls and women are illiterate, so as in most aspects of their lives they require the presence of a male to speak on their behalf. August translates the women’s discussion from their native Plautdietsch into English, and along the way he records his own gentle and considered observations of the women and the proceedings. His participation in the conversation is minimal and well meant, but is met mostly with indifference. As readers we have to trust that August’s account is faithful. His outsider status in the colony, more worldly perspective, and abiding love for Ona give us reason to believe it may be so.
As the story progresses, the extent of the damage done to the women of Molotschna becomes increasingly evident. There are unwanted pregnancies, suicides, women traumatized into rage and confusion, some into complete silence, and victims as young as three years old suffering from sexually transmitted infections. Despite their individual suffering, the women continue valiantly to go about caring for one another and their community’s children in a well-ordered, if not always harmonious, way.
They are remarkably capable, in the face of such violence and upheaval, to deeply and rationally think through and debate profound and contentious questions about faith, purpose, responsibility, power, guilt, love, and forgiveness. August notes that “it is the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.” There are even moments of humour, particularly when the women are tickled by the absurd idea of asking the men themselves to leave Molotschna. Toews expertly draws out each woman’s voice and intellect through August’s narration, demonstrating that being denied the right to read and write has in no way dulled their ability and desire to use their minds. Their demands are poignantly simple: “We want our children to be safe. We want to keep our faith. And we want to think.”
Toward the end of the first night of their meetings, the women arrive at a rather remarkable understanding that the perpetrators of the assaults may be victims as much as the women, and offer perhaps the most incisive and powerful observation reached in the novel: “It’s the quest for power, on the part of Peters and the elders and on the part of the founders of Molotschna, that is responsible for these attacks, because in their quest for power, they needed to have those they’d have power over, and those people are us. And they have taught this lesson of power to the boys and men of Molotschna, and the boys and men of Molotschna have been excellent students.”
It is in these grand moments of clarity in Women Talking that we can hear Toews’ angry authorial voice behind the narration in her condemnation of the failings of the patriarchal Mennonite community. But for the women of Molotschna, understanding the system of their oppression is not enough; emboldened by one another and their faith, they must move forward and make change in order to save their very souls. And when they descend from the hayloft intent on a plan of action and firm in their convictions, there can be no other outcome.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Published April 2, 2019
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.