At first blush, the plot and setting of Miriam Toews’ new novel, Women Talking, might appear too limited in scope to be compelling. The book’s primary action takes place over the span of two days, as eight women (and one scribe, a man) meet in a hayloft to discuss whether they should leave the security of their Mennonite colony for good or remain where they’ve always lived, thus jeopardizing their safety and that of their children.
Despite the seeming simplicity of Toews’ story, Women Talking is astounding, complex, tragic, beautiful. It is a novel for our time, one that informs discussions about the #metoo and #churchtoo movements as well as about women’s agency and the roles biblical interpretation and church tradition play in keeping women silent, even when faced with horrors that should compel them to scream.
Toews bases Women Talking on actual events in the Manitoba Colony of Bolivia between 2005 and 2009. Mennonite women in the colony reported being raped in their sleep. The victims ranged in age from 3 to 65 and would sometimes wake up naked, their bodies bruised and bloody. They were told the attackers must be ghosts or demons, punishing women for their sins. In time, it was discovered that the perpetrators were men from the community, who would sedate women with an anesthetic usually used for farm animals before assaulting them in their beds.
Although crimes committed in the colony are generally adjudicated within the community, the nine men named in the criminal complaint were eventually arrested and sent to nearby Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for trial. On Aug. 25, 2011, eight of the nine men were given 25-year sentences; the ninth was given a 12-year sentence for being an accomplice, having equipped the men with the anesthetic spray.
Women Talking imagines what happened in the colony (named Molotschna in the novel) shortly after the men have been detained in the city for their crimes, and the colony’s women must contend with the trauma of years-long sexual abuse. In the novel, the colony’s leadership has decided that the men’s safety is in jeopardy if they remain local; one woman has already lashed out at her alleged attacker with a scythe, abandoning her commitment to pacifism in righteous rage. And so, while the alleged criminals are away, imprisoned in the city, the women gather to decide what they should do.
The narrator, August Epp, has been asked to take minutes of a secret meeting organized by some of the victims, and August’s recording of the women’s deliberations — as well as his thoughts about the conversations — reveal him to be a sympathetic, if not wholly reliable, narrator. The women trust August because of his standing within the colony; he has returned to the community after living in the world for years.
The weight of his exile shapes how August understands the women talking and informs his ability to act as scribe, translating the women’s Plautdietsch (Low German) into English. While the women express fury about the men, August stands in their midst, entrusted to carry their stories and to inscribe part of the colony’s horrible history into minutes that the women themselves cannot decipher because they cannot read.
That the women cannot read is a crucial component of Toews’ story. Faced with a life-altering decision about how to respond to their attackers, the women vote on several options: to do nothing, to stay and fight, or to leave. These options are represented on ballots by pictures instead of words, the first real indication of their illiteracy.
In two secret meetings, the women contemplate their course of action. Their decision is complicated by their upbringing in an insular Mennonite community. Not only are they illiterate, they also don’t speak the language of their neighbors, nor do they know how to read maps and have no sense of where they should go. Is it safer to journey into the world they don’t know how to navigate or to face the threats they know exist at home?
Even more profoundly, the women contend with the primary tenets of their faith, including the call to grace and peacemaking. Should they forgive their attackers? What if the colony leadership demands that they forgive, without holding the men accountable for their crimes? The women have been told the Bible demands women submit to men, but at what cost?
When men have assaulted them so horrifically, can their words be believed — about God, about the Bible, about faith, about everything?
One of the women, Salome, recognizes the layered complexity in accepting the biblical call to stay within the colony because their husbands have said they must. “By leaving,” she says, “we are not necessarily disobeying the men according to the Bible because we, the women, do not know exactly what is in the Bible, being unable to read it. Furthermore, the only reason we feel we need to submit to our husbands is because our husbands have told us that the Bible decrees it.”
Toews’ characteristic dark humor introduces some levity, leavening the tragic nature of the vicious crimes with the acknowledgment that women can and will find strength in community and that their voices have the ability to disrupt powerful narratives suggesting God — and God’s word — demand that women remain silent. Together, the women create a sort of manifesto that drives the book forward to its breathtaking conclusion and to August’s final revelation.
Women Talking was shortlisted for the 2018 Canadian Governor’s General Award for English-language fiction, an award Toews won in 2004 for A Complicated Kindness. As with her previous novels, Women Talking is not an easy read, both because of its subject matter and also because of the layered narrative; I always feel Toews’ writing has a deeper meaning just beyond full comprehension.
The narrative complexity in no way detracts from the book’s horrible beauty, nor its ability to gut the reader. I will be thinking about the women of Manitoba Colony for a long time, their stories joining a litany of women who have been traumatized by powerful men, sometimes in God’s name. I’m hoping for these real-life victims the healing and strength and agency afforded the women who talk on the pages of Toews’ novel and who bear witness to the grace and goodness that can follow tremendous pain.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.