Coming to Terms with the Shadows of Pacifism

A Review of Miriam Toews's Women Talking

A review of Miriam Toews's Women Talking

240 pages, Knopf Canada, 2018, Bloomsbury Publishing (USA), 2019

It’s already becoming a cliché among women reviewing Women Talking to confess that we started out skeptical of August Epp. When I looked at the table of contents and realized that the narrator of Miriam Toews’ new novel was a man, interpreting the words, actions, and experiences of a group of Old Colony Mennonite women surviving brutal sexual assaults, I was predictably, reflexively annoyed. But I reminded myself that it’s Miriam Toews, a writer on my personal short list of novelists who are both reliably hilarious and, in the least obnoxious sense, morally trustworthy. Ever since I read A Complicated Kindness in my early twenties and realized for the first time in my life that I wasn’t the only person in the world who experienced Mennonite pacifist theology as violent and misogynist, I’ve trusted Toews to write about women as fully-realized human beings.

Women Talking is loosely based on events in the real Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, where in 2009, nine Mennonite men confessed to the serial rapes of at least 130 women and girls. (The original 2013 reporting, by investigative journalist Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, indicates that men and boys were also victims, though none were named in the legal case.) The novel’s setting is the fictional Molotschna Colony, where a group of women, illiterate, brutalized, and ignorant of the outside world, nonetheless convene over a series of meetings to discuss whether they can continue to live under the authority of men who demand that they immediately forgive their rapists. August Epp, a self-loathing former excommunicate and barely-tolerated teacher of the colony’s boys, takes minutes of the proceedings, which he translates to English on the spot from Plautdietsch. He does this because it is asked of him, and because “I would do anything for Ona Friesen.” Ona, another half-outcast, deliberately single, gentle of spirit and enamored of facts and stories, is “afforded a type of liberty to speak her mind because her thoughts and words are perceived as meaningless.” She is pregnant by the rape she has suffered. It takes the entirety of the book to understand why she asks August to take notes, because it takes the entirety of the book for August to figure it out.

Through August’s attentive descriptions, we meet the other women, all of them victims of the rapes. Salome, for instance, Ona’s sister, who “doesn’t react calmly to authority.” Her rage at the rapists’ attacks on her three-year-old daughter led her to attempt killing all of them with a scythe, an act that prompted the colony’s bishop to contact the police for the first time in its history, that the rapists may be arrested “for their own protection.” Greta, the Loewen matriarch, whose signature move is to dramatically fling her hands over her head, who talks incessantly about her horses, Ruth and Cheryl, and declares she is no longer a Mennonite. Mejal, the illicit smoker with a suspicious “secret life.” Mariche, maimed by her husband’s brutality, alternately reasonable and viciously judgmental with what Greta (her mother) calls “misdirected rage.” “We are wasting time,” Greta says at one point. “by passing this burden, this sack of stones, from one to the next…We mustn’t play Hot Potato with our pain.”

Women Talking’s resemblance to a Socratic dialogue has been noted by multiple reviewers, but it’s a Socratic dialogue with time pressure, and the reader, like Greta and her Friesen counterpart Agata, feels the urgency created by the imminent return of most of the colony’s men, who are in the city posting bail for the rapists. Still, the daughters debate and debate: are women more worthy of protection than animals? Can God forgive the rapist of a child so that her mother doesn’t have to? What is the difference between “fleeing” and “leaving”? Is a fifteen-year-old boy a son to be protected, or a man to be feared?

If the women are to leave (and the reader is made to understand that most of the other women of the colony plan to follow their lead, having collectively entrusted the decision to the Loewen and Friesen women), they must leave before the men return. If they stay, they must fight, because unlike a small faction they have labeled the “Do Nothing women,” they cannot abide the status quo of submission and victimization any longer. “I will become a murderer if I stay,” says Salome, and I, the reader, believe her.

Crucially, Women Talking is also a portrait of trauma survival, and in this, Toews is a master. All the Loewen and Friesen women bear the marks of lives lived in proximity to cruelty, sometimes as its target. The young women, with the exception of the equanimous Ona, pass their proverbial sacks of stones from one to another, their temper explosions and withering gallows humor interspersed with August’s unembellished descriptions on the specific horrors they’ve endured. Sometimes the manifestations of trauma are physical: nervous head-patting, compulsive eye-rubbing, seizure-like “episodes.” Here, August earns my trust as a narrator; he relates the physicality of these behaviors without sentimentality or disgust, including his own “simian instinct” to tear at his scalp, a relic of time spent in prison for horse theft.

There is no dignity for men like August within the authoritarian patriarchy of the colony, men who love to read, who can’t farm, who stop their own tears at the sound of women singing by “focusing on the definition of liminal space.” Liminal space is where August lives. In Moloschna, the only home the bishop allows him to have is a shed. He is deemed a “half-man,” and it is this that makes him a safe man, so safe that the teenage daughters of Mariche and Salome don’t bother covering their hair around him. When Mariche’s husband Klaas—a brutish reminder of the daily violence that awaits these women if they stay—briefly appears in the narrative, he taunts August for being with the women, threatening to check and see what is between his legs. Like the women and children, he is kept in line by sexual threats. Later, August wonders, “How will I live without these women?”, and we know the chances are good that he won’t.

For Mennonite readers, the failed utopia of Moloschna is likely to haunt long after we’ve finished reading—especially knowing, as we do, that its horrors are not exaggerated in relation to their real-world antecedents. Beyond the Manitoba colony, as the Mennonite world continues to face its reckoning with legions of increasingly restive abuse survivors, I suspect that this brilliant, love-laden, soul-branding novel will be central to many a discussion about what happens next.

About the Author

Stephanie Krehbiel

Stephanie Krehbiel is the Executive Director and co-founder of Into Account, a nonprofit advocacy organization for survivors of sexual violence in Christian settings. She has worked as an advocate and co-organizer with Mennonite victims ranging from those in Plain traditions to progressive Mennonite college students. She is a graduate of Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, and has a PhD in American Studies from University of Kansas. Some of her work can be found on the blog of Into Account, where she writes about higher education, institutional betrayal, and why godly men should be quiet.