51 pages • 1 hour readMiriam Toews
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Miriam Toews’s Women Talking (2018) is a novel set in the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna. It follows a group of the colony’s women as they discuss how to respond to the discovery that many of their menfolk have been anesthetizing and raping them for years. The book is inspired by actual events that took place between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. There, eight men were discovered to have been raping the women of the colony after rendering them unconscious with cow anesthetic. Toews begins the novel with an author’s note that gives background information about the historical event and ends by saying that the book is “both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination” (xi). The novel explores themes related to the violence of patriarchy, faith in a religion steeped in hypocrisy that sees them as nothing better than animals, and the healing power of community and communication.
Toews, who grew up in the Mennonite community of Steinbach, Manitoba, is the author of several novels set in Mennonite communities, many of which criticize aspects of the faith. Women Talking, Toews’s seventh novel, has garnered considerable acclaim: it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Book Award and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. It was a New York Times Notable Book and appeared on a number of year-end best-book lists. A critically acclaimed film adaptation of the novel was released in 2022, which was nominated for a number of film industry awards, winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
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This study guide refers to the 2020 Bloomsbury Publishing paperback edition.
Content Warning: The source material features depictions of domestic and sexual violence, rape, and suicidal ideation.
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Toews’s epistolary novel is written as meeting minutes taken by the colony’s schoolteacher, August Epps. It opens shortly after eight men in the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna are jailed for drugging and raping female members of the community. Over the past few years, nearly every girl and woman in the colony, from the very young to the very old, has had the experience of waking up drowsy, bloodied, and bruised. When they report the abuse to the colony’s leader, Bishop Peters, he tells them that that they have been visited by ghosts or by Satan, who is punishing their sins, or that their reports are the result of “wild female imagination” (57). The truth does not come out until one of the men is caught in the act and confesses. Following an attack on a perpetrator, Peters has the men taken to the city prison—but only for their own protection.
As the novel opens, Bishop Peters and the colony’s men have left to retrieve the perpetrators from jail, leaving the women, children, and those who are elderly or have disabilities behind. Before he leaves, Peters issues an ultimatum: If the rapists ask for forgiveness, the women must give it to them. Otherwise, men and women alike will be barred from Heaven, and the women (only the women) will be excommunicated and forced to leave the colony. He gives the women two days to organize their response.
The women come up with three possible actions: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. While some advocate for forgiving the men, fearing what will become of them if they leave the colony, many are determined to leave even though they are “unable to read […] unable to write […] unable to speak the language of our country” (80). Others want to stay but resist Peters’s ultimatum. The loudest of the do-nothing voices is Scarface Janz.
After identifying their choices, the women delegate the decision to just two families, the Friesens and the Loewens. Eight women—an older matriarch, two adult daughters, and a teenage girl from each family—will choose what the Molotschna women will do. Before the meetings begin, one of the adult daughters, dreamy Ona Friesen, finds August on a footpath. Overwhelmed with guilt and shame, he is contemplating suicide, though this detail does not emerge until the end of the novel. When Ona and August were young, they had been friends, with August’s mother attempting to educate both of them. Because of their bond, and to protect him from himself, Ona asks August to return with her to the barn where the women are meeting to take minutes. The other women agree to this arrangement because they want a record of their deliberations and can’t write themselves. They also trust August because he is non-threatening—an “effeminate” man.
August faithfully transcribes the women’s discussion while gradually unfolding his own personal history in the margins of the debate. August grew up in Molotschna Colony but was excommunicated (by Bishop Peters’s father), along with his mother and the man he believed to be his father. This expulsion purportedly related to his parents’ intellectual activities but (in another detail revealed late in the novel) was in fact motivated by August’s resemblance to the younger Peters: his biological father. After his mother’s death, August became involved in anarchist political movements and was eventually arrested for stealing a police horse. Following his release, he wandered aimlessly until a kindly librarian listened to his story and told him to return to Molotschna for his childhood beloved: Ona.
Over two days, the women debate their options. First, they discuss practicalities: what can they do if they leave, how much can they feasibly resist if they stay. Their questions lead them to deeper moral, political, and theological considerations. The women voice their fears, their anger, and their doubts, for the first time openly questioning the hypocrisy of their religion and the patriarchal structure of their society. Nevertheless, the women remain devout Mennonites, and the argument that their faith requires universal love and forgiveness carries a great deal of weight. The women continue to debate, their strong personalities listening and bending, even if the debate is sometimes profanity-filled and furious. Eventually, they reach a consensus that the only thing that will save them, their children, and even the offending men is to leave.
During the deliberations and planning, Mariche’s husband, Klaas, returns from the city. He intends to retrieve livestock to sell, raising money to bail the offenders out of jail. Finding the women in the midst of their preparations, he demands to know their plans. The women divert him with a false story, but in his suspicion he beats Mariche and her daughter, Autje. Agata persuades him that he requires oral surgery, drugs him, and steals his buggy. He heads back to town without any livestock. Meanwhile, the two teenage girls who are taking part in the discussions, Autje and Neitje, trade sex with two men from a neighboring colony in exchange for their cooperation in the escape plan.
As word reaches the colony that the men are on their way back, the women gather provisions for their exodus. They succeed in amassing what they need, and the women of the colony—with the exception of Scarface Janz and the other “do nothings”—join them as they leave the colony. With them is a map August has fashioned for them and the minutes he has taken that they cannot read. They are determined to survive, despite their lack of experience with the outside world.
As the women leave, August lies alone in the hayloft, reflecting on what he has learned from them: “The purpose was for me to take them, the minutes. Life” (215). Their discourse has given him the ability to carry on, and although he knows he doesn’t have all the answers, he feels he has skills to offer the world.
By Miriam Toews