In a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia over 130 women were drugged and raped by the men of their community from 2005 to 2009. These men were arrested and in 2011, were convicted in court and received lengthy sentences.
The novel Women Talking by Miriam Toews, is the author’s imagined response of those women, giving them a voice. Miriam having grown up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada was able to identify closely with these women and in one interview with theguarding.com she said, “she felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women.” Her first hand knowledge coming from her upbringing gives the reader rate insight into a life so different from the norm.
Miriam allows you to join these women in their hayloft meeting as they work through some of the hardest decisions they will make in their lives, questioning their faith, love and life as they know it.
As you join these women in their conversation, you will find yourself going through many feelings and questioning much of what you take for granted. Thankfully, Miriam has included some humour to help when dealing with such weighty subjects.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews is the recorded minutes of the meetings of eight women from the Molotschna Colony as recorded by August Epp (a man who left the colony as a child when his parents were ex-communicated and has returned to the colony years later).
These eight women are from two families representing three generations of the women who have been drugged and raped by men within their community. The attackers have been arrested and while the men of the community have gone to town to post bail for them the women of the community have hastily planned a meeting in the hayloft to discuss their options.
While each option is discussed we are enlightened about life within the colony and what it is like to be a woman there. Living within this authoritarian community, the women are not educated, illiterate and have no real knowledge of the world outside their colony. As they discuss their options, they must deal with their feelings about these attacks, their faith in God and what He would have them do, their future, their families and the legacy they will leaving for future generations.
Women Talking opens with August Epp, who has been asked to record the minutes of the meeting as the women are illiterate and unable to do it for themselves. Throughout the story we learn more about August, who was born into the colony but left as a young man when his parents were ex-communicated. He has returned to the colony and is the teacher for the community. While as a young man he was friends with Ona who he secretly loves. Ona is one of the eight women in the meeting and who requested that August keep the record.
As well as Ona, there is Agata (Ona’s mother), Salome (Ona’s sister) and Neitje (the niece of Salome), these four are from the Friesen family.
Loewen family is also represented at the meeting, including Greta, Mariche (Greta’s oldest daughter), Mejal (Greta’s youngest daughter) and Autje (Mariche’s daughter). All these women were victims of the attacks with Ona becoming pregnant.
Throughout the story we see how these attacks have impacted the women and their battle between their faith and their feelings while they work towards a decision that provides them peace moving forward.
There are many themes within Miriam Toews’ Women Talking from the strength of women to questioning authority and one’s value in society.
As a woman, I cannot say I have ever had to face the kind of horrors these women had to endure, or face decisions of such consequence, something of which I admit to taking for granted, until reading this book. There were many things this story that opened my eyes to what I was taking for granted. Many times, in this book the women compare themselves to animals and how, possibly, the animals are treated better than they are. This is alien to me, as I was raised by parents who encouraged me that I could do or be anything to which I set my mind. This story reminded me that this is not the norm for everyone. How different are our cultures? How thankful I am to be living with the freedoms I have the luxury to enjoy!
As currently our society questions the equality of all humans, I find this book to be timely, as it points to questioning how we treat our fellow humans. Do we treat people as we should or just as we have always done? How do we change things for the better? Do we leave or stay metaphorically speaking do we abandon our past beliefs or cling to them, because it is what we have always done?
Of course, I would never claim to know the answers, but this book brings to the surface that just accepting things as they have always been, can have terrible consequences. There is always fear as we move from the known into the unknown but at times, we need to question knowing that the unknown may be scary but may lead to something ultimately better than we have ever known.
Woman Talking was a hard book for me. Miriam Toews does an amazing job of allowing you to join at the table, see the pain, feel the anger and turmoil. As a mother and grandmother, I found the authenticity hard to handle, not that she was graphic in anyway but in what she does tell pulls you from your comfort zone. I needed to take a few breaks while reading this which is not normal for me, yet this book spoke to me in a very real way — pointing out to me how much I have to be thankful for and causing me to question things that I normally just let pass by. While this is not the book to pick up if you are looking for something funny and fluffy, if you are looking to be pulled from your comfort zone, made to question societal norms and see things through a slightly different light, then I highly recommend this book.
Vote for your favourite book and community library. At the end of the Grey County Reads contest in April, three winners will be chosen randomly from among all voters to receive gift certificates for and one library will win $200 worth of books.