Plot of Women: Toews’ novel follows the secret meetings of eight Mennonite women as they attempt to decide how best to respond to these traumatic events on behalf of all other women in the colony.
Women Talking (2018) is Miriam Toews’ seventh novel and her seventh work of nonfiction. Toews describes her novel as an imagined reaction to real events that occurred at Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia: Between 2005 and 2009, over one hundred girls and women there woke up to discover they had been sexually assaulted while sleeping.
Colony elders initially denied or dismissed these nighttime attacks, until it was revealed that a group of men from the colony were spraying an animal anaesthetic into their victims’ houses to render them unconscious. Toews’ novel follows the secret meetings of eight Mennonite women as they try to decide how best to respond to these traumatic events on behalf of all other women in the colony. With only 48 hours before men who are away to post bail for the rapists return, these eight must make their decisions quickly.
Table of Contents
Plot of Women Talking begins with a note from the author in which she describes her novel as both “a reaction through fiction” to true-life events and an act of female imagination. These events took place at Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia. From 2005 to 2009, many women and girls would wake up to find they had been sexually assaulted at night.
These attacks were often attributed to ghosts or demons or God’s punishment for their sins, or simply the result of “wild female imagination.” Eventually, it was revealed that male colonists had been using chemical spray to sedate entire households in order to sexually assault women. In 2011, eight men were found guilty by a Bolivian court and each received an extensive prison sentence.
Plot of Women Talking takes place on a Mennonite colony called Molotschna following horrific nighttime attacks. Eight men believed to be responsible are captured and kept prisoner inside a shed. One of them tragically dies while being confronted by angry colonists and Salome, one of the raped women, attacks him with a scythe.
Peters, bishop of Molotschna, calls in city police to arrest the suspects for their own safety. Now the men have gone to the city to post bail for the suspects so they can await trial from home. Additionally, it gives women a chance to forgive the men in order to ensure everyone’s place in heaven; any woman who does not forgive them, according to Peters, will be excommunicated.
While the men are away, the women of the colony hold a referendum. On the ballot are three options – forgive the men and do nothing; stay in the colony and fight; or leave. Votes are equal between’stay and fight’ and ‘leave,’ so eight women from both families — four from Friesen family and four from Loewen family — are appointed to break the deadlock. During the hours that remain before men return, secret meetings in haylofts allow them to debate this issue before making a decision.
Find great deals on ebay with “flash sale” filter! Plus you’ll never have to leave home again! On June 6 and 7, 2009, the women engage in a series of challenging discussions: how to maintain their faith while accepting abuse; will they truly be denied entry into heaven if they refuse forgiveness of those responsible; what forgiveness and healing mean; as well as the pros and cons of staying or leaving.
Each of the eight women has been the victim of multiple rapes, with Ona Friesen pregnant with one perpetrator’s offspring. Though no actual rapes are depicted in the novel, their violent nature is vividly captured: Greta wears dentures because her teeth were knocked out during her attack and other women bear “faint scars,” caused either by rope burns or cuts.
The women are interrupted by Earnest Thiessen, the elderly and infirm owner of the hayloft. He inquires if they are planning to burn down his barn. Agata, the oldest Friesen sister, answers “no, Ernie; there’s nothing here but just women talking.” Klaas, Mariche’s husband who has returned from the city to gather twelve horses for auction, climbs into the hayloft after hearing that Mariche has just finished quilting. That evening he gets drunk and beats Mariche severely.
The novel is presented as the minutes of women’s meetings, taken by August Epp, the colony’s male schoolteacher who recently returned after excommunication. August takes these minutes at Ona’s request as she cannot read or write (the women speak Plautdietsch). While transcriptioning their conversations, August gradually reveals his own backstory: his parents’ excommunication from the colony; university studies in England; arrest during a protest in London and imprisonment; his parents’ death and disappearance; as well as struggles with depression (which Mennonites refer to as Narfa).
Ultimately, Greta and any boys under the age of 15 decide to leave Chortiza Colony along with any girls. But they still run the risk of being discovered by the Koop brothers, who are guarding Greta’s beloved horses Ruth and Cheryl in Chortiza Colony next door. Autje and Neitje, two teenage girls, use sexual pressure to secure the horses and ensure the brothers do not alert anyone else of their presence.
With promises of pleasure, Autje and Neitje convince the brothers to enter the hayloft with them, falsely asserting their virginity has already been lost. Salome uses belladonna spray on her brothers as she watches, to the same effect she used on them for years. She also uses it on Scarface Janz (a ‘do nothing’ woman who she fears will find a way into town to alert the men) and her son Aaron who doesn’t want to leave the colony. After leaving in a convoy of buggies, all four women leave together.
August is left behind to watch over his sleeping brothers, reflect on the Plot of Women’s sudden absence, his own life and decisions, and eagerly awaits the return of the colony men. He reveals that his family had been excommunicated because he began to look so much like Bishop Peters at twelve. Furthermore, Ona asked him to take minutes not because she thought it necessary but rather out of Suicidality: she believed it would make him safer amongst women performing a task together.
August Epp is the narrator of this novel. Born in Molotschna, but speaking and writing English due to having lived abroad after his parents’ excommunication for not confessing August’s identity as the son of Bishop Peters (not his mother’s husband). After being imprisoned for stealing a police horse during a protest in London, he returns home as schoolteacher but finds that others regard him with suspicion and scorn. Ona, his childhood friend and love interest, asks him to record minutes from meetings they hold together – an act which earns him some accolades from Ona (whom he loves).
Greta (Loewen): The matriarch of the Loewen family. Her teeth were knocked out when she cried during an attack and now she wears painfully large dentures. Passionate about horses Ruth and Cheryl, Greta is passionate about her older daughter Mariche in a domestically abusive marriage to Klaus.
- Mejal (Loewen): Greta’s younger daughter; chain smoker with an “esoteric life.”
- Autje (Loewen): Mariche’s teenage daughter who is close to Neitje.
- Agata (Friesen): The pragmatic matriarch of the Friesen family.
- Ona (Friesen): Agata’s serene older daughter who is unmarried and pregnant as a result of rape; Mina committed suicide after discovering Neitje’s unconscious body covered in blood and semen and being told by bishop Peters that it was Satan’s work.
- Salome (Friesen): Agata’s fiery younger daughter. Her anger is “Vesuvian” and her eyes never stay still as she seeks revenge against those responsible after learning her three-year old daughter Miep has contracted a venereal disease after being raped. Salome takes action with a scythe in order to put an end to these horrific crimes against her innocent daughters.
- Neitje (Friesen): Agata’s teenage granddaughter, whose mother committed suicide after discovering Neitje had raped her; now living with Salome and drawing illustrations for the referendum.
- Scarface Janz: An influential member of the colony; one of the most vocal ‘do nothing’ women.
- Melvin Gerbrandt: Watches over the children while the women converse. Deeply traumatized after witnessing his premature son being born by rape, Melvin changes his name from Nettie to Melvin and becomes mute, refusing to speak to anyone except children.
- Peters: The bishop of Molotschna prohibits outside helpers from entering the colony. His father, Peters Senior, excommunicated the Epp family. A belladonna spray is discovered in his dairy barn.
Mennonites began setting up colonies in Bolivia during the late 1950s after the government offered land near Chiquitano dry forests region north of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and promised them exemption from military service, freedom of religion and control over education system.
The initial settlers came from Paraguayan and Mexican colonies established thirty years earlier by fundamentalist Mennonites who fled Manitoba, Canada when the Canadian government implemented its official public-school curriculum. Old Colony Mennonites from Belize and Canada followed, eventually leading to 57 colonies with a population of approximately 70,000 in Bolivia by 2013. The Manitoba Colony, established in 1993 and home to over 2000 members, shares many similarities with other conservative Mennonite colonies in South America.
Residents wear plain clothing and speak Plautdietsch. Horse-drawn buggies transport them around the colony, with only men allowed to leave unaccompanied. Electricity and modern technology are strictly avoided; any sports activity involving balls is forbidden. Boys receive an education until puberty, limited to High German, math, and religion; many also learn Spanish; however intermarrying with any of the local population is strictly forbidden.
In August 2011, seven men from the Manitoba Colony were sentenced to 25 years in prison for rape, while an eighth man, Peter Wiebe Wall a veterinarian, received 8 years for providing the drug used to debilitate victims. A ninth person, Jacob Neudorf Enns escaped from Palmasola Prison before trial and remains at large. All five men pleaded not guilty. Although 150 women testified during the trial, hundreds more did not feel comfortable testifying; several of those on trial were accused of intimidating witnesses such as their families not to testify. It has been reported that such acts of drugging continue throughout society – not just within Manitoba Colony but elsewhere too.
At first, Toews only heard about the sexual abuses in Manitoba Colony through “Mennonite grapevine.” Although she was horrified by the details, she wasn’t entirely surprised: “Extremist, closed communities are ripe for violence.” When international media confirmed these rumours in 2009, she began organizing her thoughts and planning how she would write about this story; unfortunately, her older sister Marjorie died by suicide (2010 as their father had done 12 years before), inspiring Toews to write All My Puny Sorrows – a novel inspired by her sister; followed by Women Talking which she finished writing by early 2017.
Toews is of Frisian ancestry, descended from Klaas Reimer (1837-1906), one of Canada’s earliest Mennonite settlers who arrived in Steinbach, Manitoba from what is now Ukraine in 1874. Steinbach’s founding figures are linked to the colonists of Bolivia, and its location draws inspiration from that province. According to Toews, all of her characters in Women Talking were inspired by friends and family from her hometown.
Growing up in a Mennonite town as part of the Kleine Gemeinde church, she experienced firsthand the harm fundamentalism can do to people, particularly those who are truly faithful. Writing her novel, she says, she experienced “rage and heartbreak mixed with feelings of faith,” as well as all the questions she had about her Mennonite community: “As a teenager I began to comprehend the profound hypocrisy, sanctimony, authoritarianism, culture of control or rules and punishment – all things which seemed so far away from God’s presence. That conflict has continued to enrage me for many years.”