Once in a while, you read a book that, though clearly labeled “fiction,” tells a story that really happened. The characters are people you could swear you know, even though the names are different. The events of the plot manage to surprise you, but that’s only because you had forgotten them, since, clearly, they couldn’t have happened any other way. Every word feels true as you forget you are reading and listen instead to the story being “retold” to you, wondering if the reason it feels so real is that you were there and this is, somehow, also your story. Such are the risks of reading Miriam Toews’ Women Talking.
It is true that the incidents that precede the events in the novel are inspired by horrific real crime: Between 2005 and 2009, over 130 Mennonite women from the Bolivian Manitoba Colony were drugged and raped by men in their own community. Women and girls were sedated with horse tranquilizers as they slept, and when they awoke, broken and bruised, were told that the devil had attacked them in punishment for their sins. Ultimately, the guilty men were discovered and arrested.
But when Women Talking begins, we are in the fictional community of Molotschna, and though the same scenario of unfathomable abuse has played out, Toews’ novel daringly and thoroughly imagines what could have happened after. What women could have done if the colony’s men went to the city to get their guilty released on bail, in this case, so they can return to Molotschna and be forgiven by the women, who forgive they must, lest they lose their souls and betray their faith.
As the women of Molotschna are not allowed to read or write, Ona, one of the women, pregnant with her baby’s attacker, asks August Epp to take the minutes of a very important secret meeting: While the men are in town, a group of women, faced with the probability of having to live with their attackers, to allow them near their children, will debate whether to stay and forgive, whether to stay and fight, or whether to leave.
August Epp, the novel’s narrator, and school teacher to the commune’s boys, is a sickly man who has been allowed to stay behind by the men, considered weak and, thus, a lesser man. Secretly and deeply in love with Ona, he agrees to take the minutes of the women’s meeting.
“She is looking at me while I write. My pen is shaking. She can’t read, so I could write the words, ‘Ona my soul belongs to you,’ and she would not know.”
The minutes of these meetings, as written by August, make the bulk of the novel and the result soon makes clear this is really a book about women teaching themselves to be women in a world of men, aware that their own love is the biggest constraint they face in their quest for basic rights, such as safety and identity.
There is no need for inclusive pronouns here, not only because the world of Molotschna is one in which only women and men exist, whether they feel they can identify as such or not, but also because the women’s discussions wisely focus on male and female energy in the context of force, intention, and power and on how these variables corrupt and transform into misogyny.
Still, when the women realize that the sons, brothers, and husbands they love are part of the evil that threatens their very lives, they rationalize:
“But not all men, says Mejal. Ona clarifies: Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”
Ms. Toews uses the narrative device of meeting minutes to great effect, achieving To Kill a Mockingbird levels of courtroom drama and raised stakes, while rarely quoting her characters directly, recreating the speed of thought-to-speech that occurs in the midst of impassioned, values-based discourse.
And though there is passion, there is also much method to Women Talking. The thought process the women employ to make their decision plays out as an example of modern feminism, one that doesn’t renounce the value of men, but that grapples with reconceptualizing every part of a world in which women would be able to live as equals, in this manner forcing the reexamination of ideas as timeless as faith and family, and as daily as the motherly manipulation of sons or the criticism of other women’s choices, reflected in the figure of the “do nothing” women in the novel.
That deep examination of the role of certain cultural practices in perpetuating the kind of society in which Manitoba, and Molotschna, are allowed to happen, becomes most tense and focused when the women, individually and collectively, try to answer the question of what role romantic love can play in their lives after innocence has been lost, then place it in contrast to the question of what they would be willing to die for, regardless of that love:
“Salome pauses, perhaps to rest . . . No, not to rest. Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not hurt another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year old child. ‘No,’ says Agata softly, ‘not dancing. Not desecration.’ Miep has begun to cry and little Julius is laughing, unsure of himself, eyes shining, tiny pearls.”
Thankfully, moments such as this are judiciously rare. There is no need for melodrama or overexplaining, and the author knows it. We get the sense that lines were written and rewritten (maybe transcribed?) until she believed them so that we could too, only in the end returning to the central conflict between love and violence, in the voice of August Epp:
“how I repeated those words to my cellmates, the words of Flaubert, wrapped in the memory of my mother, of love and death, the death of a dream, or perhaps not death. A part of my scalp was removed, brutally, when I finished, the part that I scratch at wildly, as though I’m searching for the source of something, something I’ve lost, a frenzy of pain. Why does the mention of love, the memory of love, the memory of love lost, the promise of love, the end of love, the absence of love, the burning, burning need for love, need to love, result in so much violence? Molotschna.”