When Is It Women’s Time to Speak?

In Miriam Toews's new novel, women in an isolated Mennonite colony debate how to move forward in the aftermath of sexual assault

Casey plett inside home
Photo by Adam Rankin

In the opening note to her new novel, Miriam Toews informs us that about a decade ago, in a remote Bolivian community of Mennonites who’d immigrated from Manitoba, “hundreds of girls and women would wake up in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night.” The attacks, which went on for years, were initially attributed to demons. “Eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them.” The men were later jailed, but reports of attacks and sexual assaults have continued. Her book, Toews explains, is an imagined reaction to these real-world events.

Women Talking takes place in a fictionalized colony called Molotschna, an ultraconservative Mennonite community that exists apart from its unnamed country. The girls and women of Molotschna were victims of nightly attacks, like the real women in Bolivia, and the perpetrators have been arrested. At the start of the book, the women of the colony have gathered alone, the able-bodied men having travelled to the city to bail out the rapists. The women know that, when the men return in two days’ time, they will be told by their church leader to forgive their attackers— to absolve the men so they will be allowed into heaven and also to save their own souls, as bestowing forgiveness is a mandate of their faith. This is the breaking point for most of the women, and they vote on how to respond: they can do nothing, they can stay and fight, or they can leave. Some choose the first option, but the rest deadlock. Eight women from two families, the Friesens and the Loewens, are then selected to meet in a hayloft and decide the group’s collective future.

These eight women, who range across three generations, are illiterate (as are all women in Molotschna), and so they turn to one of the remaining men to record the minutes of their clandestine meeting: a teacher named August Epp. August, who narrates the novel, is a kind, effeminate man with anxiety— “Narfa,” as his people say, or nervousness. It is heavily implied that he is the only man the women trust, though many say that he’s not much of a man at all. August records the women’s ensuing conversations, which interweave questions of justice, religion, autonomy, and obligation. While he occasionally notes his own observations or gives background information, the bulk of the novel is August’s transcription of the women talking. Take a speech by Greta Loewen, one of the elders, who compares the plight of the women to that of her favourite horses:

Greta explains that these horses, upon being startled by Dueck’s stupid dog, don’t organize meetings to determine their next course of action. They run. And by so doing, evade the dog and potential harm.

Agata Friesen, the eldest of the Friesen women (although born a Loewen) laughs, as she does frequently and charmingly, and agrees. But Greta, she states, we are not animals.

Greta replies that we have been preyed upon like animals; perhaps we should respond in kind.

Do you mean we should run away? asks Ona.

Or kill our attackers? asks Salome.

The conversation unfurls within the unquestioned context that the leaders of the community will bring no further consequences to the attackers. Even though they were arrested, and a group of drunk and angry Molotschnian men even hanged one of the rapists, the attackers still seem to be supported by the patriarchs. When Salome Friesen tried to kill the attackers with a scythe upon learning that her three-year-old daughter had been repeatedly violated, Molotschna’s bishop— a dour, ruthless hypocrite named Peters— stopped her and finally called the police to report the crimes. It seems clear that he did so to protect the men, however, rather than to get justice for the women. A trial will come eventually, but there is no reason to believe that the attackers will be found guilty.

Now, as the women talk, they find that both fighting and leaving present enormous difficulties— they don’t know how to fight against the men and win, and since they all speak only Low German and lack knowledge of the world, they do not know how they would leave Molotschna and survive on their own.

It seems inevitable that Women Talking will be discussed within the context of contemporary conversations about sexual assault. Comparisons to #MeToo will be apt but only partly so. The novel certainly reckons with the trauma of survivors. But, in contrast to current demands of consequences for violent men, the idea that further consequences might come to Molotschna’s attackers seems impossible. Women Talking is not a book about holding men to account for their crimes; it is a story about how women move forward in the face of few viable options.

Miriam Toews was raised a Mennonite in Steinbach, Manitoba. She gained literary fame in part for her incisive critiques of Mennonite ways and rural Christian fundamentalism. Yet, in contrast to the apostates that populate her previous novels, the characters in Women Talking are committed Christians. As the hayloft women talk about their options, faith remains their guide. However, their situation poses contradictions: any action, including no action, pits their religion against itself. Agata tells the group:

By staying we would knowingly be placing ourselves in a direct collision course with violence, perpetrated by us or against us. We would be inviting harm. We would be in a state of war. We would turn Molotschna into a battlefield. By staying in Molotschna we would be bad Mennonites. We would be sinners, according to our faith, and we would be denied entry to heaven.

Mejal takes a long haul off her cigarette. She exhales, and nods. Agata is right.

Let’s shake a leg, then, Mejal says.

But by staying and fighting, Mariche objects, we will hopefully achieve peace for our children. Eventually. And our colony will remain intact and we will remain apart from the world, not in the world, which is another central tenet of our Mennonite faith.

These ideological digressions are the novel’s heart: If you have unfettered belief in something but your adherence to it comes with abuse and pain, what are you to do? How do you shelter goodness in your life when that goodness is intermeshed with violence and suffering?

An indictment of patriarchy in Christian culture has coloured the background of Toews’s earlier work, but it’s front and centre in Women Talking . When Salome explodes, “We’re not members of Molotschna!…We are the women of Molotschna,” it’s easy to picture Toews’s previous characters clapping in solidarity.

In Toews’s first six novels, her protagonists were often young, empathetic women with sardonic wit. They were traumatized by loss or the spectre of it. Like Lucy, the single mom on welfare with a zany best friend in 1996’s Summer of My Amazing Luck, or Yolanda, who watches over her suicidal sister in 2014’s All My Puny Sorrows, they were charged with taking care of others. They were considerate between bouts of fury. They were funny. In A Complicated Kindness— the 2004 novel that launched Toews to stardom, winning the Governor General’s Literary Award and Canada Reads and earning a place on the Giller Prize shortlist— sixteen-year-old Nomi, who lives in a Manitoba Mennonite community with her father, dreams to her male teacher about a world beyond fundamentalism: “[I said] I wanted to experience goodness and humanity outside of any religious framework. I remember making finger quotations in the air when I said religious framework. God, I’m an asshole.”

Taken together, Toews’s earlier novels feel like an eighteen-year-old discography— albums from a band that never changed front women or rhythm sections, exploring some new territory on each record yet retaining the same voice. In many ways, Women Talking is unlike any of them. The stakes here are immediate, the humour is sparse, and the tone is dire. Rather than zeroing in on one or two characters, the novel hangs on the lives of an entire community. And few long-time Toews readers will expect a protagonist more unlike the snarky young women of her previous books, who so often are trying to escape their communities, than August Epp. August never states any longing to leave his home or his religion. Instead, his character explores the greater possibilities of return.

When he was twelve, August’s family was excommunicated from Molotschna under the pretence that his parents were teaching others about worldly subjects, such as art (it is later revealed that it had more to do with the fact that, as August grew, he bore a striking physical likeness to Peters, the colony’s bishop). After moving to England, August goes on to university and becomes involved with political radicals, which eventually lands him in prison, where he is beaten daily. Homeless and suicidal upon release, he is found by a sympathetic librarian. “My foray into the world,” August tells her, “resulted in my removal from the world.” The librarian encourages him to return to Molotschna, “where life had made sense.”

August does, however, resemble one other Toews character: her own father, Mel, in 2000’s Swing Low: A Life. That memoir— the author’s sole work of non-fiction— is told from Mel’s perspective. A devout Mennonite schoolteacher who died by suicide in his sixties, Mel feels like a similar narrator to August, with their slower cadences and teacher sensibilities. Both are peaceful men among unpeaceful men. But while Swing Low has the dreamy meandering of Toews’s other stories— Mel tending to his garden and watching his daughters is reminiscent of, say, the eponymous protagonist of Irma Voth looking at stars and dallying with boys— there is an urgency to Women Talking , a feeling that has never existed in a Miriam Toews book. Indeed, the hayloft women’s conversation is often punctuated by somebody hollering a version of “We are running out of time! The men will be back very soon!” To read it for a decades-long Toews fan will be as if your wisecracking best friend has suddenly appeared on your doorstep an older, grimmer version of herself, and she must sit down with you for an unavoidable chat.

The details of the violence in Women Talking appear, in quiet Mennonite fashion, plainly but sparingly. The brutality of the attacks never reads as sensational or emotionally manipulative. And, despite the manifold ways in which the book is a turn from past work, Toews’s mastery of language and nuanced character portraits remain intact: August and the eight Friesen and Loewen women are all fully realized, smart, and flawed, and Toews never tips into pitying or valorizing. All this makes Women Talking a hard read— it’s a book that provokes profound despair, unspeakable rage, and a guttural, screaming empathy for the characters who speak within it.

It may seem odd, then, that this female-penned novel about sexual assault— one that’s so firmly centred on women’s voices— is told from the perspective of a man. In many respects, August is unnecessary, narratively speaking. He’s a deeply likeable character, but do the women really need “minutes” of their meeting? Certainly, Toews could have written the same book, much of it word for word, without August present at all.

Throughout the text, however, is an underlying question: Where do the men fit into this equation of the women’s choices? If the women leave Molotschna, which of the men, if any, should be able to accompany them? What should happen to the boys or to the elderly and infirm? Even though the men seem to have no interest in reconciliation, what would they have to do to regain the trust of the women? It seems telling that, as the women wrestle with these questions, August rarely opines in his writing or aloud— he only offers his opinions when asked directly. And, at the end of the novel, he also makes his own plans for what he’ll do when the other men return.

Once the women make their final decision and exit the hayloft, August’s writing reaches a soul-rending crescendo. “The women in the loft have taught me that consciousness is resistance, that faith is action, that time is running out,” he writes. “But can faith also be to return, to stay, to serve?” For all their raw pain, Toews’s novels conclude on traces of healing and often show how faith can last even when religion fails. This is where this beautiful, devastating, and outstanding book also ends: reaching for something like grace.

Casey Plett
Casey Plett is a winner of the Amazon First Novel Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.