The dominant theme of Miriam Toews’ work is the Mennonite people. Mennonites are a unique people group, a religious group that fled Russia many generations ago. Many ended up in Canada as farmers and in time have widely assimilated into modern life. Several of these types of Mennonites show up in Toews’ work but here in Women Talking she explores a more traditional group, located in South America.
While Women Talking is a work of fiction, it is based on real life event. Over a number of years in the early 2000s, in an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia, a large number of women and girls were drugged and raped while unconscious. While initially these attacks were attributed to their demonic and seen, perhaps as punishment for these specific women, it was eventually discovered that eight men (and possibly more) in the community were responsible for these attacks. In an unprecedented move, the community involved secular authorities and the men were arrested. While those men were still in jail however, a movement began among the Mennonites to raise bail for them and bring them back to the community, presumably with the intent for the women to forgive them and live together again.
Toews’ novel takes up this story in the few days in which the men from the community, called Molotschna in the novel, have left and gone to the city to raise bail for these attackers. The women are meeting secretly to decide their own course of action. Do Nothing, Stay and Fight, or Leave. Eight women have gathered in secret to debate what should be done and, in truth, discuss their own value as human beings amidst a vastly patriarchal society where they are often times viewed as little more than livestock or chattel.
There is one man among them, August Epp. August is the narrator, the keeper of the minutes of this meeting. The women of Molotschna cannot read or write in any language. They speak a dialect of German, not English or the Spanish spoken in the country around them. They’ve asked August to keep a record for them. August is a unique figure, a man who grew up in the colony but left as a child when his parents were excommunicated. After a troubled adolescence and young adulthood, he has returned to Molotschna as the only community he knows.
It is, of course, an interesting choice to tell the story of these women through the narration of a man. August is depicted as entirely sympathetic to these women. He is an outsider himself, seen as a lesser man by the other men in the colony and though allowed back in, he is still broadly shunned. Because everything we hear and see is through August’s ears and eyes, we can never entirely know these women for themselves. That is, I think, Toews’ intent. These are women who have never been allowed to leave the community, never been allowed to make their own decisions. Even aside from the horrific rapes, they have very little autonomy over their own bodies. Their fathers and then their husbands own them.
The book is hard to read in many places. Because these women are so vulnerable. Because these attacks are so atrocious. And because we know throughout the novel that this is all based on real life. There is little action within the timeframe of the novel itself; it is “only women talking”, as the characters say more than once. This is how these women enter into and begin to seriously consider the idea of changing their whole lives. Both staying and fighting or leaving require an entirely new mindset. Toews works brilliantly too to show how faith and the tenets of being Mennonites (one of which is pacifism) are a part of these women. Some of the women reject these elements while others cling to them and claim them as their own, even as they seek something new for themselves and their children. They worry about eternal punishment and forgiveness even as they acknowledge that everything they know about their own belief system comes from the men around them.
There’s a lot in this novel and, as I said, it’s hard to read at times, especially certain mentions of the children who were not spared from the nighttime attackers. Over and over again Toews handles this real world story with care and dignity. She brings her characters to life, imbuing them with individuality and humour and rage and love, providing them a dignity that all people deserve.