Women Talking Book Review: Navigating Safety, Ethics, and Faith

books bordeaux women talking miriam toews

In 2009, in a secluded Mennonite colony in Bolivia, it was revealed that for a period of five years several men had been repeatedly drugging and raping girls and women throughout the colony. Victims from over 100 households were identified in the trial held two years later, but it is believed the actual number assaulted was much higher. When the women in the colony would speak of pain or bruising or waking up unusually drowsy, male family members and colony leaders would say that they were visited by the devil or would dismiss their claims out-right as wild female imagination.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews is a fictionalized depiction of events directly following the reveal of these real-life assaults. The author, Toews (pronounced “Taves”), is a Mennonite herself. Because she grew up in a similar situation as these women, she felt an obligation to tell the story of these events: “I needed to write about these women, I could have been one of them.” In this transcribed radio interview, Toews compares her upbringing with the Manitoba colony:

It’s similar in that the rules are very much the same. Certainly the misogyny within the culture, the culture of control, discipline, guilt, et cetera. But some of the details were very different. The community that I grew up in was a very conservative, is a very conservative Mennonite community. It was the first Mennonite settlement in Canada. But we, for instance, drove cars. We left the community from time to time, whereas in these closed colonies — for instance, the one at the heart of the book — the women, you know, really in my opinion are prisoners, in a sense. They don’t speak the language of the country that they’re in, they don’t read and write, they don’t leave the colony without being accompanied by a man.

‘Women Talking’ Gives A Human Voice To Horror’ NPR Weekend Edition

The novel begins just when the attackers are about to return to the village after being released on bail. The women have been given a charge by their colony leader: they must forgive the attackers in order to ascend to heaven and avoid repercussions from the community. But the women fear future attacks on both themselves and their young daughters. In addition, they do not know if they are capable of forgiving these men now—or ever.

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To explain the importance that Mennonites place on compassion and forgiveness, my girlfriend shared with us the tale of Dirk Willems. In 1569, the Mennonite faith (then called Anabaptist) was gaining traction, and because secular leaders feared the challenge would lead to societal breakdown, Anabaptists were persecuted with fines, exile, and even execution. As the tale goes, a Dutch man named Dirk Willems was jailed and convicted for being an Anabaptist. He escaped and fled across the ice, but his pursuer fell through. While he could have continued to freedom, he stopped to save the life of his pursuer. Dirk Willems was then recaptured and burned at the stake for practicing this new religion, which valued the then-radical concepts of believer’s baptism, separating church and state, and peaceful nonviolence and nonresistance.

Having someone from the Mennonite faith to talk us through the values from a broader perspective helped me understand the struggle of the women in this story even more. For example, when Salome expresses violent thoughts and even enacts violence upon the men who attacked and raped her daughter, I felt 100% behind her—how could I expect her to act differently than I believe I would? But if your faith was built on the foundation that non-violence was a fundamental value—then resorting to violence in those circumstances would be different. Still, Salome’s diatribe is emotive and compelling:

Salome erupts. She raises her voice, causing Miep to awaken and Julius to stop chewing on the leather. We do not have to be forgiven by the men of God, she shouts, for protecting our children from the depraved actions of vicious men who are often the very same men we are meant to ask for forgiveness. If God is a loving God He will forgive us Himself. If God is a vengeful God then He has created us in His image. If God is omnipotent then why has he not protected the women and girls of Molotschna? If God, in the book of Matthew, according to Peters, our wise bishop, asks: Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, then mustn’t we consider it a hindrance when our children are attacked?

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 harm 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.

What are the implications for their immortal souls if they don’t forgive their attackers? What are the implications for their immediate safety if they do? With their limited resources and education, can they risk leaving? Should they risk staying? Women Talking is the exploration of these questions. While violence against women, misogyny, and efforts to control women’s bodies still occur the world round, the answers are relevant to all of us.

Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

Fend & Foster Pinot Noir. Scent is jammy, plummy, vanilla, intense mineral. On the palate: red plum, red apple, green olive. Unexpectedly and pleasantly dry. Recommend enjoying with savory food.

How Did It Happen For So Long?

When you first learn of these sexual assaults, it’s natural to ask how they could have occurred for so many years. The Mennonite colony of Manitoba is not obligated to report any crimes (except murder). The husbands and fathers, all the way up to the chief civic official, Abram Wall Enns, took no action when women reported waking with blood in their beds, ripped clothing, and being bruised and disoriented. This policy of keeping quiet allowed these violent crimes to continue for years and to affect many more women and children. Disturbingly, the most recent news from after the trial is that rapes and molestations may still be occurring and are still not discussed.   

Mennonites in less conservative Bolivian colonies say that when news of the alleged rapes reached them, there was grief — but not shock. Many Manitoba Colony members themselves now acknowledge the trouble. Abram Peters — whose son, defendant Abram Peters Dick, is accused of buying his first drugging spray from Weiber at age 14 — says the men are scapegoats for Manitoba’s broader sins. “Rapes happen [in Manitoba] all the time,” he claims, “within families too.”

A Verdict in Bolivia’s Shocking Case of the Mennonite Rapes

For many people, Women Talking will be their first introduction to the Mennonite religion, and it’s important to know that the Manitoba colony is one interpretation of the Mennonite religion, and not representative of how all Mennonites live and practice. Around the same time our book club read Women Talking, we also watched the Netflix series Unorthodox, which describes a woman’s journey to separate from a strict Satmar Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY. Coming from a partly Jewish background, I felt acutely how an ultra-conservative version of your religion can feel so distant from your own experience. 

The Male Perspective in Women Talking

At a crucial point in story, the women are discussing whether preteen boys should be treated as men or as children—the real question being, are they a danger to the women and children of Molotschna?

When August answers—that we all have the capacity to do harm—he goes on to describe a positive and nurturing way to mold a young mind that reveals just how harmful the colony’s current culture may be.

Every one of us, male or female, poses a potential threat. […] I believe that with direction, firm love and patience these boys, aged thirteen and fourteen, are capable of relearning their roles as males in the Molotschna Colony. I believe in what the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought were the cardinal rules of early education: “To work by love and so generate love. To habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth. To excite imaginative power.” In his Lecture on Education, Coleridge concluded with the words: “Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.”

The male perspective that August provides is vital to the story. While the psychological pain and social oppression that August experiences is very different from sexual assault, it is still incredibly damaging.

How Did We Like the Book?

Overwhelmingly Women Talking was a winner with our book club! We all appreciated how the women were described so naturally; how Toews took the time to describe physical interactions that showed the nature of their relationships. For example, when the teenage girls would swing from the rafters in boredom/anxiety, and when the daughter would ask her elderly mother to stop rubbing her eyes. And we thought August’s role was brilliant. One of our members noted how making August the narrator gave Toews the artistic room to reference literature and art of which the women of the Molotschna colony would have no knowledge. There were a couple of women in our book club who either: (1) found the back and forth debate repetitive or (2) found the subject matter too heavy (at least during quarantine).

Toews writes about women who experienced an unbelievable trauma not just personally—but as a community. Through Toews brilliant story-telling, we get to see the strength of their love, their sisterhood, their faith, and their convictions as they determine their best course of action. Just as Julia Alvarez did with In the Time of the Butterflies, when she invited us into the lives of the women living through the revolution in the Dominican Republic, Toews makes the story entirely personal.

It’s easy to think of these people in these closed colonies, in these remote places, isolated, as sort of freaks, and cultists, in a way … but the reality is too, of course, that they’re human beings, and I wanted to convey that. Because I feel that as long as we think of them as freaks and outsiders, we can then very easily say, well, you know, that’s happening there, but it’s so alien, maybe it’s not really happening. And if you don’t think it’s really happening — at least not in the society you’re familiar with — it’s easy not to do anything about it, and not to even really think about it. … Like human beings everywhere, they argue, they laugh, they joke, they contradict themselves, they nurture each other, care for each other. So I enjoyed making up the voices of the women in the loft, and hopefully — the hope is that someday we’ll hear from these women directly.

Women Talking is a brilliant and compact novella, presenting several ethical and theological questions in its light page count. Because of the heavy subject matter, I would not have picked this book on my own. But I’m so glad that a member of our book club recommended it—just goes to show the power of discourse aka a good book club chat! Many minds are better than one!

Women Talking Discussion Questions

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