Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote religious Mennonite colony, over a hundred girls and women were knocked unconscious and raped, often repeatedly, by what many thought were ghosts or demons, as a punishment for their sins. As the women tentatively began to share the details of the attacks-waking up sore and bleeding and not understanding why-their stories were chalked up to 'wild female imagination.' Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events. Eight women, all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their colony and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in, meet secretly in a hayloft with the intention of making a decision about how to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm. They have two days to make a plan, while the men of the colony are away in the city attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists (not ghosts as it turns out but local men) and bring them home. How should we live? How should we love? How should we treat one another? How should we organise our societies? These are questions the women in Women Talking ask one another-and Miriam Toews makes them the questions we must all ask ourselves.
Here in Manitoba we have many Mennonites as it is one of the places that promised Mennonites fleeing from persecution in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries land, autonomy and freedom from serving in the military. That is probably why the Mennonite community highlighted in this book was called the Manitoba colony even though it was located in rural Bolivia. This community was far more restrictive than most of the Mennonite communities in Canada. Women were kept illiterate and did not travel beyond the colony's borders. They did not handle money even though their quilt making brought in a significant amount of funds for the colony. Men, which included boys over the age of 13, made all the decisions and women were taught to obey their husbands. So, it was a very repressive society for women. But during the period between 2005 and 2009 women and girls (one as young as 3 years old) were knocked unconscious with a animal sedative and then raped and assaulted. Almost every female was assaulted during this period. The women complained to the community authorities but nothing was actually done until some women set a trap to catch one of the perpetrators. He gave up the names of eight other men and all nine were charged mostly to remove the men from experiencing the wrath of the community's women. When the novel opens the perpetrators are in jail in the city and all the men of the community have gone there to arrange for bail. The head of the community, Bishop Peters, has declared that when they return the men will ask for forgiveness and the women must grant forgiveness so that everyone can enter heaven when they die. Peters has also declared that if the women don't forgive the men then the women will have to leave the community. The book is ostensibly a written record of the discussions the women have to decide whether they will stay and forgive, stay and fight, or leave. Since all of the women are illiterate they have drafted the one man in the community who remained behind, teacher August Epp. The women don't see August as a threat because he is not like all the other men as he can't till a field or castrate a pig. So August sits in on the discussions and records not just the words but also the emotions and background information. Despite being illiterate the women are not stupid and they debate the options with logic and passion and even wit.
This probably is not an accurate portrayal of what happened at the community. In fact, a woman of my acquaintance who was raised as a Mennonite says that there is no way a man would be allowed to sit in on the discussions in a traditional place like the one portrayed. Nevertheless it is a useful vehicle to express what the women must have gone through in their minds and in their conversations. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated very ably by Mathew Edison.
There is so much going on here. I really hope people take the chance to read it because it's something special.
Eight of the women meet over two evenings while the men are away and discuss their options. Should they leave, stay and acquiesce, or stay and fight the men. Their meetings make up the near entirety of the book. The conversations amongst themselves are lively and entertaining, but certainly the reality of disparate women unleashed to discuss a topic candidly. The one variable here is that they aren’t alone. They have enlisted the help of the male schoolteacher to take minutes which they have no ability to read.
I found the topic of this book interesting, yet in reality it didn’t live up to my expectations. The women were victims, yet some seemed willing to accept their role as pawns to the men in the community. They often came off as petty and self-righteous among themselves, and were constantly driven off track by minor irritations and random comments. I was surprised to find that I was more accepting of their indulgences as I read on. It was interesting how much I could get to know and appreciate the characters of these women just through these two evenings. I found myself caring about their choices and outcome by the end of the book after being more than a bit exasperated at the start.
The real wild card in this book was the character of August, the teacher, and his role as secretary for the women and narrator of the story. It is obvious that he has an affinity for one of the women that seems mutual. The other women either find him to be sympathetic or at least tolerable. Several times they ask him for his opinion or allow him to share a comment. Still, he is one of the men, and as such has no part in their decision. The author’s placement of him in this role seems a bit of a paradox.
Interestingly, this story is based on a real event. The author does seem to have a purpose behind her version the story. It made me think and will probably stay with me awhile. If for no other reason, I liked the book and would give it 3.5 stars.
I hesitate to recommend this title to everyone. I think it’s for a select audience of readers who enjoy books that make them look at things in a different way. It might work for certain book clubs, but will probably be a “did not finish” for many readers. I would suggest that anyone who gives it a try commit to persevering through to the end. You won’t find it to be a climactic one, but you won’t get the full flavor of the writing without finishing. It is absolutely not a book for action or thrill oriented readers!
My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this title.
"Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote religious Mennonite colony, over a hundred girls and women were knocked unconscious and raped, often repeatedly, by what many thought were ghosts or demons, as a punishment for their sins." As it turned out, 8 men from the colony were responsible for these attacks, and they were arrested and sent to prison for their crimes. But some of the girls that attacked were as young as three, and, as can be imagined, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and PTSD were rampant. This book tells us how 8 fictional women meet together in a hayloft, and how they plan to protect themselves and their children by leaving the colony. The book is written as minutes of the meetings that were held in that hayloft. None of the 8 women could read, so they recruited a man to do the recording for them. The book unfolds as August Epp, who is a teacher in the colony, begins to fully understand what these women have been putting up with for many years. It's a story of survival and a story of women taking back their power over their own destinies. It's a difficult book to read, but it's an affirmation of the strength of women and also a testimonial to their determination to do whatever it takes to save their children and grandchildren. Miriam Toews does a masterful job of putting this down in writing, and with her stark prose, and her wonderful grasp of getting to the main issue, this book is a must-read for women today. The "me-too" society has brought all this to the forefront these days, so the book is timely and appropriate.
In Ms. Toews’ book, eight of the raped women meet in a hayloft to discuss what they should do to prevent themselves and their daughters from further harm. Should they stay and fight or should they leave? They had a window of opportunity as the men were off trying to raise money for the accused men’s bail. These women were never told how to read or write and knew nothing about reading a map or where they could go. They were told if they could not forgive these men, they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So they had a lot to discuss. If a women whose 3-year-old child had been raped couldn’t forgive in her heart, wasn’t it a worse sin to say she forgave the men even if she didn’t mean it? The women in this community were just commodities to these men and had no say in anything. In reading this book, it was hard to believe that this happened in 2005-2009 and wasn’t something occurring centuries ago.
The author does such an excellent job of delving into the hearts and minds of these courageous women. I felt their fear and their heartache and their confusion as to what they should do to make their lives bearable. The suspense builds as the time for the men to return nears. In trying to decide what they should do, they have lengthy discussions about religion and faith. There were times they seemed to forget the urgency of their situation and lectured each other. There’s some humor in this book, despite its dark subject. It’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. Don’t expect much of a plot as the book is just what the title says it is – women talking. I think it was quite exceptional and destined to become a feminist classic. Not all readers will like the format of this book but the emotional depth of this story is just astounding.
Most highly recommended.
This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Although this was an interesting story, I did not like the writing style. The book just talked in circles. There was very little forward movement. All of the characters blended together, no one seemed to have a unique voice. Overall, a bust.
It was somewhat jarring that a book that seemed as though it was to be about female empowerment was told from a man's perspective, but it worked. He is privy to the women talking as an amanuensis; none of the women can read or write, but want their deliberations preserved for posterity. He's an outsider in the colony, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but his outsider status allows the women to trust him for this task, and makes him appropriately sensitive to them, in a way that no other man of their acquaintance could, or would, be.
And perhaps this is a realistic notion of what could happen when such an insulated group of people is threatened in this way. But I found it troubling to read about a group of women facing such a threat to themselves and their children and spending two days sitting in a hayloft debating the finer points of free will, rather than making actual plans. The lack of action in the books gives it a claustrophobic feel, which seems appropriate under the circumstances, and that feeling of clautrophobia helps keep the pressure on throughout the narrative, having the effect of sucking the reader through the story, rather in the manner of a pneumatic tube.
So what will the women decide to do, and will they be able to follow through on that decision? That is what they are talking about, and the question of whether they will be able to sieze their freedom, no matter what they decide, will leave the reader thinking long after the last page.
The women talk about the patriarchy that oppresses them. They rightly deduce that the rape is a crime of power, not of sex. The women are concerned with the spiritual implications of the crimes are discussed as well.
For a book without much on-stage action, Toews succeeds in building up genuine suspense. Will the women stay or go?
Despite its brief length, Women Talking is somewhat slow going. Nonetheless, it rewards the time it takes to read it.
**Note: My advance reading copy had some major typos involving dates, which was VERY confusing, and took me out of the book a bit, so that was destined to create a diminished reading experience for me. I wasn't sure where I could check the actual dates in the finished copy, considering the book isn't published in the US until April. I tried contacting marketing but they weren't much help and that was the only e-mail address I had. The detail that was confusing: On the first pages of the book, it is said that the 'minutes' of the meeting are being taken in real time (as 'minutes' usually are) on June 6 and 7 2009. 2009 is mentioned on the early page 'minutes of the women talking'. But on page 99, when this is still supposed to be 2009 (as far as I can tell), August is talking about a newspaper article with a headline "in 2011". So this makes it sound like the minutes aren't being taken in 2009? If anyone can clarify, I'd appreciate it.
It‘s horrific to think this is based off real life events and I applaud the author for bringing what happened to light.
The most terrifying aspect of this novel is that it is based on true events.
Toews presents a group ill-prepared for life outside of the Mennonite community. Unlike men, who receive a very basic education, the women are illiterate and don't even know what lies beyond their own lands. They know that they will be expected to forgive the attackers and struggle with whether this is even possible. This is a thoughtful book, carefully representing a faith community that is little known to outsiders. It's also a very quiet, contained novel, despite the lurid subject matter. In the end, the question the women must collectively decide is whether to stay or to leave, and as they grapple with the possible consequences of both actions, a slow consensus builds.
While all of the men are either under arrest or away at the main city where the men are being held trying to arrange bail, the male school teacher is secretly taking the minutes of the meeting of the women involved as they try to list the pros and cons of leaving or staying. The problems are immense. They are illiterate for the most part and have never set foot outside of their small community. As they discuss their choices it becomes obvious that the patriarchy has left them defenseless and with few options. Highly recommended.
The substance of the book is the discussions by two families of women, three generations from each family, who are discussing what their alternatives are in response to the actions of the men. They are able to meet because Bishop Peters and other men are in town, trying to raise bail for the alleged perpetrators of the rapes. They ended up in civil action because of one of the men was nearly murdered by one of the women victims.
The narrative is so subtle that the horrifying situation that the women are in sinks in slowly with the reader. The all encompassing violence of the men, perpetrated by the absolute power they hold over the community.
One telling quote related by hearsay from Bishop Peters in response to a newspaper clipping about what had happened to the women of the colony: "Dump men in the middle of nowhere, confine them, abuse them, suspend them in limbo, and this is what you get."
I give it 3.5 stars, mostly because there is some inconsistency in the language, vocabulary, and ideas that the women might have had available to them.
This book is about an imagined response to this, in which eight women, over forty-eight hours, talk about what they can do and will choose to do about what's happened, while the men of the colony are in a nearby town trying to post bail for the men involved in the assaults. It's a challenging listen, but also fascinating.
Because the women are illiterate, they recruit one of the few men they trust, the schoolteacher, August Epp, to write down their discussions to create a record. Epp's own connection to this colony, where he was born, is tenuous and complicated, and the other men give him about as much respect as they give the women.They're right to trust him; his sympathies and respect lie with them, not the other men of the colony.
As the women talk, in several meetings over the forty-eight hours they have to make their decision, we get to know them, the variety of their personalities, interests, and concerns, as well as, slowly, August Epp's own history, interests, and concerns. Our understanding of the women, from teenagers to grandmothers, and of Epp's experiences in and out of the Mennonite colony, and through each of these viewpoints, we begin to get an understanding of the Mennonite colony as a whole, and its relationship to the wider world.
The women's story is a hard one, and Epp's isn't an easy one either, but it is compelling.
I bought this audiobook.
With a somewhat outcast male member as secretary of the meeting, whose minutes make up a huge portion of the book, the women hem and haw over their choices. Their options are 1. Do nothing, 2. Stay and fight or 3. Leave. During their sometimes heated discussions the reader discovers the women of this colony are illiterate, have no electricity, are valuable only to produce children, cook and work the fields. Everything they know and believe has come from their fathers and husbands.
They ultimately come to a decision but at times the story reminds one of Animal Farm with their manifesto, revolution and songs. The difference here is, although childlike to a fault, they have what chickens, cows and pigs do not and that's what fuels their decision with, hopefully, long lasting results.
The blurb from the back dust jacket says, this book "is an imagined response to these real events"