About a decade ago, over 100 women in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia were secretly sedated and raped by male members of their community. Some attributed the attacks to ghosts and demons; some argued the women were being punished by God for their sins; and others said that the women, with their wild, female imaginations, invented stories. Miriam Toews used this event and her imagination to craft this novel from the perspective of women in such a colony, a novel that is heartbreaking but also uplifting.
Eight women gather secretly in a hayloft after eight men have been arrested for the assaults. The men will be out on bail and returning to the community in two days so the women have a short time to decide how to move forward: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. What follows is a Socratic dialogue in which the women debate how to proceed and touch on subjects like faith, forgiveness, and love. There is no evidence of female hysteria; the women debate using logic.
The narrator is August Epp who was asked by the women to record the minutes of their meeting “because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves” (1). The women speak only Plautdietsch, “an unwritten medieval language” (8) so he must also serve as their translator. August is the community’s teacher, though he and his family were once excommunicated so he spent years living in the outside world. He is the most educated man in the colony but is considered effeminate and ineffectual by many community members because he has no farming skills. In some ways, his position in the colony is like that of the women who are useful but lack independent voice and agency.
The novel is light in plot but heavy in substance; one of the women even says, “’there’s no plot, we’re only women talking’” (179). That word “only” perfectly reflects the attitude of many of the men who see women as inferior beings who endlessly engage in meaningless chatter. Of course, their talking is anything but that. Though they shy away from words like revolutionary and manifesto, that is precisely what they are composing. One of the women summarizes the principles most important to them: “As I understand it, what we women have determined is that we want, and believe we are entitled to, three things. . . . We want our children to be safe. . . . We want to be steadfast in our faith. We want to think” (153).
The women’s choices are curtailed by the type of lives they have led and by their religion. They are uneducated and know almost nothing of the world outside the Molotschna Colony. One of the women lists the obstacles: “We girls and women are considering leaving the colony, but has it been determined among us what we will do, how we will live, how we will support ourselves, when and if we leave? We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world – we have no world map –“ (80). Even if they could find a map, how could they read it? They have also been told that they must forgive the men or they will be denied entry into heaven. If they leave, they are disobeying their husbands and such obedience is a major tenet of their faith. If they stay and fight, they would also not be allowed into heaven: “By staying in Molotschna . . . we women would be betraying the central tenet of the Mennonite faith, which is pacifism, because by staying we would knowingly be placing ourselves in a direct collision course with violence, perpetrated by us or against us. We would be inviting harm. . . . We would be sinners, according to our faith, and we would be denied entry to heaven” (103 – 104).
The novel examines the plight of women in patriarchal, authoritarian societies. One woman points out that women are not real members of the colony: “We’re not members! . . . We are the women of Molotschna. The entire colony of Molotschna is built on the foundation of patriarchy . . . where the women live out their days as mute, submissive and obedient servants. Animals. Fourteen-year-old boys are expected to give us orders, to determine our fates, to vote on our excommunication, to speak at the burials of our own babies while we remain silent, to interpret the Bible for us, to lead us in worship, to punish us! We are not members, . . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters. And if they could sell us at auction afterwards they would” (120 – 121).
Though there are eight women and it is initially difficult to remember who is who, gradually distinct personalities emerge. As the women reclaim their independent thought and find their voices, the portrait of each woman becomes clearer. Salome, for example, is the hot-tempered, impatient one. The development of the two youngest, sixteen-year-old Autje and Neitje, is interesting. At the beginning, they are bored and pay no attention but gradually become interested, contribute to the discussion, and even undertake independent action.
The novel does not focus on what happened to the women but there are occasional glimpses which are horrifying: Miep “was violated by the men on two or possibly three different occasions, but Peters [the bishop of Molotschna] denied medical treatment for Miep, who is three years of age, on the grounds that the doctor would gossip about the colony and that people would become aware of the attacks and the whole incident would be blown out of proportion” (41). Then there’s the case of Nettie who “was attacked , possibly by her brother, and gave birth prematurely to a baby boy so tiny he fit into her shoe. He died hours after being born and Nettie smeared her bedroom walls with blood. She has stopped talking, except to the children of the colony, . . . [and has] changed her name to Melvin . . . because she no longer wants to be a woman” (45 – 46).
Considering the seriousness of the discussion, humour might not be expected, but there are some humourous sections. Salome has a number of heated exchanges with Mariche about precision in word usage: “Mariche shakes her head at this, indignant. She apologizes sarcastically for using the incorrect word, a sin so outrageous that Salome with her Olympian airs and almighty mind must take it upon herself to rectify for the sake of humanity” (41). And some of the observations made cannot but bring a smile; for instance, Salome says, “by leaving, we are not necessarily disobeying the men according to the Bible, because we, the women, do not know exactly what is in the Bible, being unable to read it. Furthermore, the only reason why we feel we need to submit to our husbands is because our husbands have told us that the Bible decrees it” (157).
This novel is a must-read. Because of its subject matter, it invites comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale. It also invites a re-reading.