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Miriam Toews’s Quiet Revolution

The women in her new novel confront abuse and grapple with faith.

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, the Lord God said. Let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps. God named the man, and the man named the animals, and then God gave man a bride. The anonymous authors of Genesis said that Adam named her, too. Eve, man’s rib, the first wife, the mother of all living. Called woman because she was taken out of man. Not an animal, but not the first human, either, Eve is defined by her function. She is a helpmate to man. She is second. God ordains it.

Wives should submit to their husbands, Paul wrote to the first Christians. It was a life sentence, but he was not the first man to pass it. Let the women learn in silence, he said, or they will disrupt the church. What the women thought of Paul, about his pronouncements or their own place in the world, the Scriptures do not say. Perhaps they were haunted by the first judgment. Eve acts of her own volition only once, and it is to disobey God and bring man down with her into dust. Is this what happens when women talk?

In her new novel, Women Talking, Miriam Toews disputes Genesis and Paul. In the fictional Molotschna Colony, a group of Mennonite women have gathered in secret to discuss a sin. Horrors have visited them at night. A group of men in the colony drugged them with a veterinarian’s anesthetic for years, and raped them and their children while they slept. The act is discovered when one woman forces herself to stay awake. The colony’s bishop, Peters, hopes to hide all this from the secular world. But a woman named Salome Friesen forces his hand, when she attacks the rapists with a scythe; they have abused her three-year-old daughter, and she wants justice, or at least retribution. The rapists live, and Peters hands them over to local authorities in part for their own protection. The women, he decides, must choose to forgive, or they will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

by Miriam Toews
Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $24.00

The religious dictates of Molotschna give men all the power. But no doctrine can make the women stupid. When the men leave to post bail, the dissenting women meet in a barn to discuss the options the bishop did not give them. Toews did not write a play, but Women Talking often reads like one; the women fight with one another, and rage at men and God, and debate matters of religion and identity. They keep a record of their turmoil through an amanuensis, August Epp, who is the novel’s narrator. A former prisoner, he returned to the colony years after its bishop excommunicated his parents. The women tolerate him because the other men believe he is effeminate, and because he is the community’s schoolteacher. He can read and write, and the women cannot, so one of their number, Ona, has asked him to take minutes for their meetings. It is August’s job to listen to the women talk.

They have two days to decide upon one of three options. They may do nothing. They may leave. Or they may stay and fight. Toews’s cast has already discarded the first option; the only thing more intolerable than what has already happened to them is for them to do nothing in response. But their other options represent significant departures from their Mennonite identities, at least as those identities have been defined by the men who run the colony. If they fight in a physical sense, they violate a core tenet of their faith: Mennonites are pacifists. If they fight for justice, and demand some measure of control over their lives, they reject another colony teaching: Women are supposed to be submissive to men. And if the women leave the colony altogether, they will leave everything they know behind them. They only speak Plautdietsch, the language of the Mennonite colonies. They do not have a map of the surrounding area. Trips to nearby towns are usually undertaken by the men, which deprives women of useful worldly experience. Though there are other Mennonite colonies nearby, they will not protect Molotschna’s women from its men.

The women only have themselves—their bodies and their minds, which both contain evidence the men would rather ignore. A pregnancy, a toddler’s venereal disease, the rope marks on the neck of a woman who dies of suicide; their bodies speak to stone ears. The women do not need counseling, the elders rule, because they weren’t conscious during their rapes. To the men, the women are little more than tools—objects with specific but limited function that can be put back on the shelf or in a box when not in use. Molotschna’s society relies on the absence of a woman’s inner life.

Narratives about women in tightly controlled religious communities sometimes make them look like paper dolls, flattened-out and helpless. The image of a woman in religious garb often functions as code for violent oppression—as if it requires no further explanation, no context, no development at all. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tips us off early to the extent of Kimmy’s trauma not just by explaining her abduction and imprisonment in a bunker, but by showing us her prairie dress and hairdo. Modeled unmistakably on the clothing worn by the women of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, who suffered rampant violence at the hands of their community’s men, Kimmy’s costume tells us she was raped long before the character admits it herself. 

The Handmaid’s Tale—both the original novel by Margaret Atwood, and the first season of Hulu’s television adaptation—remains a powerful exploration of fascism, and of the subordinate role it inevitably forces women to occupy. But in the years since its debut, the show’s marketing has so aggressively linked the struggles of its red-clad Handmaids to those of women fighting contemporary injustices that something of import feels lost. The show’s shapeless red clothes denote victimhood; there’s no complexity or subtlety to the role of a Handmaid. In real life, the choice between a religious community and freedom may be obvious, but it’s never simple—and neither are the women it confronts.

Toews knows this both from her own experience and from research. She grew up in a conservative Mennonite congregation in Canada, which she chose to leave at the age of 18. In a brief introduction to Women Talking, Toews explains that her novel fictionalizes real sexual assaults in the Manitoba Mennonite colony in Bolivia during the early 2000s. There a group of men repeatedly raped women at night after drugging them with a veterinarian’s anesthetic. But the Manitoba women remembered flashes of these assaults, even if they did not recall the identities of their attackers. Some women tried to report the incidents to the colony’s authorities but were dismissed. Maybe demons did it, the settlers wondered, yet those demons had familiar faces.

Colonists eventually caught two men trying to break into a house at night; the men eventually confessed to the rapes and gave the names of other perpetrators. Manitoba turned them over to the Bolivian authorities, and in 2011 a court found them guilty and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms. But the rapes may have continued, as Toews notes in her introduction. Vice News reported in 2013 that women spoke of ongoing assaults. As in Molotschna, some community leaders refused to admit it. And as in Molotschna, the women did not have access to counseling. As far as anyone knows, there was no vote in Manitoba, no secret meeting in a hayloft. But the women of Manitoba did talk, to one another and to the men who govern their lives. The men simply did not listen.

Whatever caricatured perceptions a reader may have of religious women—especially when those women are housewives in modest, religious dress—Toews’s novel overturns. Mennonite women come to full and fearsome life in Molotschna; brilliant and angry and quick-witted, impossible to ignore or diminish. They wear the head coverings and loose, modest dresses of Old Order Mennonites, they inhabit a sexist community, and they have survived heinous crimes. But the women underneath the bonnets are still women. They are not props, and their clothes are not costumes. Toews reminds us of this by telling little of the violence that drove the women to meet. She tells us, instead, of the quiet revolution they orchestrate.

They dream of new religions and new societies, where human dignity is sacred and women’s intellects can flourish. The violence they endured did not sever them from their identities quite so much as it catalyzed a collective reconsideration of what they wanted their identities to mean. How should they be Mennonite, and how, specifically, should they be Mennonite women, when they have never read the Bible for themselves? Is there even a God?

As they deliberate, the women of Toews’s novel act out the precise mental calculations that anyone does when they contemplate leaving an authoritarian faith. Molotschna’s women have experienced something unthinkable: men, acting like devils. By contemplating departure, the women open themselves up to the unknowable. But they cannot answer the basic question before them—should they stay and fight, or carve out new lives together in some other place?—until they probe the power structure that brought them to this decision in the first place. “It’s the quest for power,” says Ona, “on the part of Peters and the elders and on the part of the founders of Molotschna, that is responsible for these attacks, because in their quest for power, they needed to have those they’d have power over, and those people are us.”

In Molotschna, the line between woman and animal has become vanishingly thin. As the women talk, they sometimes look to animals, their fellow subjects, for inspiration. One of the older women, Greta, speaks often of her horses, Ruth and Cheryl, whom she says she has never whipped. Sometimes, she says, the horses would meet a loose Rottweiler on the road to church. They would bolt, and save themselves. Greta wants to bolt, too. “But Greta,” another woman says, “we are not animals.” She tells her own story of the Rottweiler. Its owner decides to rid himself of the raccoons in his yard. They’ve had babies, and he finds them a growing nuisance. He sends out the dog, it kills three, and the mother raccoon takes the rest of her children and runs. Several days later, the man sends the dog to hunt them down, but this time the raccoon kills the dog. Animals can run away, but they can also fight, the woman says. Not everyone agrees with her. Animals don’t go to heaven, Salome of the scythe points out, and if Mennonite women are like animals, then it doesn’t matter whether they forgive the men or not. Heaven is closed to them anyway.

The women move on to other topics. They know they are people, not beasts; it’s men who forced them to ponder these questions at all. Men confused the distinction between woman and animal, not only through rape, but by keeping women illiterate, pregnant, and exhausted, tasked with the menial labor of keeping the colony fed and clean and clothed. Men have stripped women down to reproductive function and toil, and then, when confronted with the fact that some of their number had drugged women with spray meant for animals and raped them for years, they closed ranks. The women know they are people, but the men do not.

And so they conclude that of their two choices, there is really only one. They pack up their children, and the colony’s animals, and leave Molotschna before the men return. August, who loves Ona—and who, as he writes down the women’s meetings, recalls a long-lost horse friend, and an affection for ducks, which once got him beaten in prison—will remain behind in the colony. August’s qualities as a sympathizer to those in bondage leave him fit to bear a responsibility that never belonged to Molotschna’s women. He is the colony’s teacher, so he’ll teach. The boys of Molotschna will learn math, history, and perhaps a basic biology lesson, that women are not animals. In the absence of their mothers and sisters as guiding forces, the boys, with August’s help, will have to build a better Molotschna. 

By fictionalizing a real horror, Toews opens the story up, and moves it from being a simple dissection of power—who wields it, and how it hides the worst sins—to an altogether more radical place. She recasts the first judgment. When God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, he reserved special punishment for Eve. She would have pain in childbirth, he said, and she would desire her husband, but he would rule over her, always. 

But not this time. “I won’t be buried in Molotschna,” an old woman tells Ona. “Help me into a buggy now and I’ll die on the trail.” There is freedom, somewhere out there. There is an end to dominion. Eve did not find it, but maybe her daughters will.