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They have to meet in secret, and time is tight. They are grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters in the Molotschna Colony, a Mennonite community in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking country. These girls and women have been attacked and raped. The bishop declared it the work of “ghosts and demons” and suggested that the women were being punished for their sins. Or perhaps they’d just imagined it, injuries notwithstanding. But the truth has finally emerged: the rapists are colony men. Husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who snuck into the women’s rooms at night, drugged them with an animal anesthetic, and beat and raped them, even assaulting a three-year-old girl. The women are traumatized and afflicted by a sexually transmitted disease (there’s no medicine to treat it), forced pregnancies, and the suicide of one rape victim’s mother. Some men are in jail; others are in town raising their bail. The women have been given an ultimatum: forgive the rapists and go to heaven, or forfeit salvation and leave the colony, the only world they know.
Eight courageous women gather clandestinely in a hayloft to decide their future. Canadian author Toews, whose six previous best-selling novels include All My Puny Sorrows (2014), grew up in a Mennonite community, and Mennonite life permeates her fiction. This sharp blade of a novel was inspired by actual events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Although their way of life, with horses and buggies, creates the ambience of several centuries past, the assaults took place between 2005 and 2009, making them all the more appalling. Toews’ eviscerating fictionalization of this incendiary reality focuses not on the violence but, rather, on the keen, subversive intelligence of the Mennonite women, their philosophical casts of mind, clashing personalities, and deep concerns about family and faith.
Toews’ choice of narrator is also counterintuitive. August Epp is the colony’s schoolteacher. The son of progressive, excommunicated parents, he has returned after a rather disastrous stay in London because of his love for Ona, one of the brave rebels meeting in the hayloft to discuss their options. While the colony’s men mock August as effeminate, the women trust him so much they’ve asked him to take minutes so that there will be a record of their debate.
The women’s predicament is complicated by the fact that they speak Plautdietsch, a medieval language now only known to Mennonites, and they cannot read or write. But they are incisive, eloquent, passionate, and caustically funny. August can hardly keep up with their nuanced yet rapidly deployed arguments, insults, jokes, stories, and analyses of the possible consequences of their difficult choices. Temperamental and generational differences emerge, as do degrees of fury, pain, and determination. The women talk, one man listens, and readers read wide-eyed as Toews’ dissenters confront the fact that they don’t actually know what’s in the Bible, only what the men tell them it says. Still, they fully intend to remain true to their faith, unlike the men, including the sect’s vow of pacifism. And one of their priorities going forward is securing the freedom to think.
Toews’ knowing wit and grasp of dire subjects aligns her with Margaret Atwood, while her novel’s slicing concision and nearly Socratic dialogue has the impact of a courtroom drama or a Greek tragedy, which brings to mind Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling (2011). Novels loosely linked thematically include The Break (2018), by Katherena Vermette; Haven’s Wake, by Ladette Randolph (2013); Prayers for the Stolen (2014), by Jennifer Clement; and In the Kingdom of Men (2012), by Kim Barnes, whose memoirs address an isolating Pentecostal upbringing.
“Women talking” has always been potentially revolutionary. Women are now speaking out about sexual assault and the code of shamed silence in its wake to an unprecedented degree, yet such agonized disclosures continue to be dismissed as the products of “female imagination,” a contemporary variation on “hysteria.” Toews’ clarifying novel will help further dismantle the toxic habits of sexism.
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