From 2005 to 2009, a group of men from the Manitoba Colony of Mennonites in Bolivia routinely drugged and raped female (and, some have suggested, male) residents, leaving their victims bloody, bruised, and covered in dirt and semen. At first, the women kept the horrors to themselves. They had no idea what had happened but felt shame, nonetheless. When they finally began whispering of the strange attacks to their sisters, mothers, cousins, and daughters, they discovered that the phenomenon was widespread, affecting girls as young as three and grandmothers (and great-grandmothers) in their late sixties. Attempts to bring the “ghost rapes” (as they came to be known) to the attention of the male bishop and elders were met with disbelief and mockery, labelled figments of “wild female imagination,” or blamed on demons or even the devil. It wasn’t until a woman (who had already been raped on repeated occasions) spotted two men breaking into a neighbour’s house that the truth of the situation was revealed.
This series of true events serves as the basis for Miriam Toews’s latest novel. No stranger to crafting difficult tales centred on Mennonite communities, the author – who won a Governor General’s Literary Award for her 2004 novel A Complicated Kindness and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for 2014’s All My Puny Sorrows – here chooses an unexpected approach. Instead of placing readers in the midst of the unfolding horror, Toews opts to begin the narrative immediately after the men have been caught, arrested, and jailed in a nearby town.
The action is set mainly in a hayloft where multiple generations of women from two families (though Toews notes that in colonies such as Molotschna, the fictionalized stand-in for Manitoba, everyone is closely related) gather to discuss what to do in the aftermath of the arrests. They have less than two days before the other men of the colony, who have gone to bail out the rapists, will return. During this time, the women must decide if they will “do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.”
Among the women, Toews places her narrator, August Epp. Deemed a non-threatening male, August is tasked with the role of recording secretary for the women, who – as per the dictates of the colony – are illiterate. August is not your typical Old Colony Mennonite, having lived and studied in England after his parents’ excommunication when he was 12, only returning to Molotschna following a stint in jail for stealing a police horse. He is desperately in love with Ona, one of the women, who is unmarried but pregnant following the rapes. August considers her a kindred spirit, both having been deemed narfa (nervous) and a bit odd by the rest of the community.
Though August weighs in from time to time with opinions about the women, for the most part Toews limits his involvement to that of observer. Through him, we are given an outsider’s view into the complexity of the women’s relationships, the ways in which each has dealt with the rapes, and broader discussions about abuse, autonomy, and faith. What comes through clearly is that the eight women in the hayloft (the only ones who didn’t immediately put themselves into the “do nothing” camp) are complex and, though uneducated, far from stupid. Their priorities are protecting their children – both from becoming victims and from becoming abusers – and finding a way to live within their faith without accepting patriarchal machinations that guarantee their continued inequality and potential abuse.
Toews does an excellent, if not altogether subtle, job of creating parallels between the extreme situation faced by the women of Molotschna and the experiences of women in society at large. The victim blaming, sense of helplessness and hopelessness, everyday sexism and misogyny that feel like death by a thousand cuts, as well as the offhand acceptance of patriarchal dominance – all of this comes through in the narrative. The phrase “not all men” is tossed into an exchange with no small measure of insouciance and Ona bemusedly challenges August when he innocently remarks – during a conversation about the absurd notion of asking the men to leave the colony rather than the women – that his thoughts don’t matter. “How would you feel if in your entire lifetime it had never mattered what you thought?” she says.
Women Talking is not an easy book. Toews doesn’t hold back from presenting readers with the bloody truth of the abuse the women suffered, or – as exemplified by one character – their enshrined acceptance of it. Despite moments of much-needed levity, the dominant tone is anger; passionate outbursts, particularly from standout character Salome, provide some of the most powerful moments in the story. As the women work through their options and ultimately reach a consensus, readers bear witness to their enlightenment and self-actualization. And that, when it happens, is a beautiful, hopeful thing to behold.