Women Talking, by Miriam Toews; A Book Review

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

Miriam Toews has done it again. She has written a novel with a “not so subtle” purpose of speaking to issues of brokenness within the human condition; this time in the Old Colony world of Bolivia, South America. She zeros in on the rape scandal that came to light in the Manitoba Colony, northeast of Santa Cruz, nearly a decade ago.

When my wife and I spent two months in Bolivia in 2009, we quickly found ourselves immersed in this outrageous tragedy. MCC Bolivia Director, Ceasar Flores, encouraged me to act as an investigative reporter while in Bolivia. Hence many of my conversations, with both German Mennonites and Spanish Bolivians, focused on this story. I visited the accused men in prison where they were awaiting trial and traveled to the Manitoba Colony to speak with colony leaders, including Bishop Neudorf. This resulted in a paper I completed in February, 2010. I find it interesting, but understandable, that in the wake of Toews’ book being released, I am receiving many invitations to discuss that paper in light of her new book.

Toews’ story takes place on the Manitoba Colony, although she names it Molotschna. It encompasses only two days in which most of the men of the colony are in Santa Cruz seeking to post bail for the accused rapists. Their plan is to return them to the Colony where the abused women will be asked to forgive these men, refusal of which would jeopardize their place in heaven. Virtually the entire book documents women talking in a hayloft about whether they should stay and fight for justice or leave for good before the men return. They have clearly rejected a third option which some women not at these meetings have chosen, which is to do nothing. The two dominant emotions driving these discussions are love for family and anger at the abuse.

One man, August Epp, a local school teacher who has returned to the colony years after his parents were banned from the colony, is invited to these meetings to “take minutes,” an obvious device Toews uses to find a voice to tell the story. It is during these free-wheeling conversations that Toews presents, in her own words, “…both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.” Pros and cons of staying or leaving are debated in dramatic fashion throughout the two days. Both options would, in Old Colony culture, be highly unusual and the odds of either of them being successful highly unlikely. If they stay to fight they might well be crushed by the more powerful men. If they leave, they can’t be sure of survival in a non-colony world.

Having been on the ground in Bolivia for a number of years I needed to keep reminding myself, as I was reading, that this is an imaginative novel and not a documentary. That is why it is of little significance that some aspects of the story just don’t fit well into the Old Colony world in Bolivia. For example, it is highly improbable that the banned Epp family would end up in England where their son, August, obtains a university education. Also taking minutes in English for Low German speaking women who are largely illiterate in any language seems implausible. Gospel songs the women sing together in the loft would be totally foreign to them. And both options discussed – staying to fight or leaving for good – would be well-nigh impossible in that setting.

And yet…

Again and again, I found revealed in the telling of the story some profound insights about Colony life that rang true on a number of levels. But they rang true on a deeper level than simply facts. Had Toews stayed more “true-to-life” she would have been forced to concede that hope for a better future for the women and their children could not be decided upon so readily by a small group of women in a hayloft over two days of anguished debate.

In spite of knowing that the two options being considered would not likely solve the dilemma they found themselves in, I found myself cheering on the women to make a move, no matter which option they would choose. Unusual times and despicable circumstances call for an extraordinary response, right? I saw in the determination of the women to do something, one way or the other, a hauntingly global cry for justice for oppressed women around the world. And that cry is not only for Mennonite women trapped in a dysfunctional Mennonite colony. It could be understood as the anguished birth-cry of a “me-too” movement on another continent.

During the two tense days in the hayloft there are many scenes where life on the colony is talked about, sometimes through metaphor, in a way that does depict colony life realistically. I was struck by how August describes to the women why the Black Sea is black when you look at its depth but always calm on the surface. While I suspect that this is not actually true, this description reflects how on the surface of colony life things may appear to be calm, especially when talking to colony leaders, but when you look a little deeper there are often dark elements that belie that calmness.

Another metaphorical moment arises among the women when they ask each other whether they are animals or not. That might sound ridiculous on the surface to an outsider, but at a deeper level it is a powerful question that needs an answer. Why, they ask themselves, do men take better care of their animals than their women? A hard question, indeed!

While some critics will criticize the book as an untrue and unbelievable depiction of a Mennonite colony in crisis, I think Toews’ voice needs to be heard. It is, in fact, “…an act of female imagination” that keeps hope alive.