Saturday, April 27, 2019

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

When Miriam Toews who grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada that she left at age 18, found the true story of 130 Mennonite women and children in Bolivia who were drugged and raped for four years, she wondered how the women might have responded when they learned the truth of their abuse. Beginning in 2005, the rulers of their community, told the victims who ranged from three to sixty years old, that ghosts had attacked them. With her knowledge of the patriarchal nature of Mennonite culture, Toews took this dismal historical event and turned it into a propulsive novel showing how eight Mennonite women in an isolated Bolivian farming community reacted. The year is 2009 and most of the colony’s men have traveled to the city to bail out the accused attackers so the eight have just two days before the men return to meet secretly to decide what they should do. As all of the women of the colony are illiterate, they ask August Epps, a shunned man who has returned to the colony, to keep “minutes” of their talks.

The eight are from two families and range from giggly teens to stern grandmothers. They’re hiding in the barn so the women who remain loyal to the rapists won’t learn of their meeting. Mariche Loewen asks the questions “should the women avenge the harm perpetrated against them? Or should they instead forgive the men and by doing so be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? We will be forced to leave the colony, she says, if we don’t forgive the men and/or accept their apologies, and through the process of this excommunication we will forfeit our place in heaven.”  Scrivener Epps adds a note to the minutes after her comments: “This is true, I know, according to the rules of Molotschna.”

One woman who is pregnant from the rape wonders who they will be if they leave the only life they’ve ever known. Another woman who takes care of the children while the women meet only speaks when she's with children since the trauma of the assaults against her. There were horrendous acts of abuse especially with the three-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped, but they’re leavened by the women’s humor as they crack jokes at each other and imagine the men in dunce caps. That Toews doesn’t detail the abuse itself but instead shows the reader how the women respond after that abuse, makes the novel palatable.

This is a story about women so it seems inconceivable that it’s told by a man taking down their words especially when those words are so intimate and painful. Through the filter of August’s voice, the reader is able to learn of the women’s fate and thus become akin to a jury listening to lawyers and witnesses detail that abuse. That the women are unable to do more than write their own names makes the possibility of leaving almost impossible and as Agata explains: “August, she says, we know how to write our names. That’s all. And it takes me longer to write my name than to plant a crop of canola. Greta laughs. And to harvest it the next fall, she says. Mariche says that she doesn’t actually know how to write her name, she’s been too busy to learn. I will help you later, offers Ona. When we have more time.”

While these women can’t read or write, they quote the Bible with ease and use scripture and life lessons to demonstrate a profound ability to reason. They resemble a Greek chorus with philosophical statements belying their lack of education. When confronted with the possibility of plotting, Agata says, “There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” When I read that line, I wished that the title of the novel had been Only Women Talking. Then as I read on, I realized that Toews’ title is the more universal. She’s addressing all of us in this book. She’s putting the world on notice that women will someday have the ability to control their own lives as long as they continue to make noise. Women Talking is about women talking to make a difference, shouting the truth, and banding together to bear witness.

Summing it Up:  Women Talking is an astonishing and inspiring novel that erupts on the page. It could be, as Margaret Atwood herself writes, “right out of The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Yet, it’s a thoroughly original and fierce manifesto that is foremost an irresistible story that readers will be tempted to read in one sitting. This reader read it quickly then immediately read it again to savor it. Read this future classic then find someone to talk with you about it. Your book club might just talk all night about this one. The “me too” movement may spark interest in this novel, but its themes will resonate far beyond our current conversations.

Read the New Yorker interview with the author for insight into the crime, the novel, and the author. Read all the interviews and reviews. This novel has created an enormous and worthy dialogue. That a book has generated this much conversation and writing in publications as diverse as The Christian Century, Entertainment Weekly, and The Wall Street Journal means it’s one you must read.

Note: Toews, like Atwood, is Canadian and American readers don’t seem as aware of Canadian authors as they are of those in the U.S. Toews’ six previous novels are also exceptional. I adored her semi-autobiographical novel All My Puny Sorrows that I reviewed here:

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: April 2, 2019

Author Website: is a Facebook page managed by the author’s publisher.

Interviews with the Author:

What Others are Saying:

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