“She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself she wanted very little.”
The women of Molotschna Colony, an isolated Mennonite community, have been making do with very little for a long time. They are not allowed to read or write. They are not allowed to profit from the fruits of their own labor. Most painfully, they can not even expect safety in their own homes. For the past several years, the women and girls of the colony have been suffering from strange and brutal attacks in the night, which they have been led to believe are “a punishment for their sins.”
When eight local men are ultimately arrested for breaking into these women’s homes, rendering them unconscious with animal anesthetic, and raping them, they are the ones who receive help from the village elders. For the protection of the ATTACKERS, they are sent to jail in the city, where the rest of the men in the community have gathered to try and raise the money for bail. In the meantime, the women are given a choice; they must either forgive the men upon their return, or be forced to leave the only world they know.
The style of Women Talking is intriguing and fresh. The book is written as the minutes of the women’s secret meetings in a local barn where they debate over and decide their fate. Ironically, these meetings are recorded by a local man, August Epp, at the request of the woman he secretly loves, Ona Friesen. It seems like an odd choice to allow a man to narrate this particular story, but I think this was a purposeful and intelligent move on the author’s part. In deciding to record their meetings, the women declare that their thoughts and ideas as worthy of being written down, even if they cannot write the words themselves.
The power of Women Talking lies in the conversations between the women themselves. As they bicker and argue over their options and the consequences of each, we see both the fierce pain and fierce love that drives them. How can they honor their faith if they refuse to forgive these men? How can they possibly forgive those who attacked them, their daughters, and their friends? How can they maintain their path to heaven while still protecting themselves and their future?
Ona’s voice is particularly worth noting. With a quiet grace, she discreetly steers the meetings by asking thoughtful questions and sharing seemingly irrelevant “interesting facts” that point towards deeper truths of their situation. One fact in particular stands out. When the women are teasing out the possibility of leaving the colony without a map of the area to guide them, one woman scoffs that they “aren’t planning to traverse the planet.” Ona disagrees that, perhaps they are. She then shares that, when dragonflies migrate, the journey is so long that it “is often only the grandchildren who arrive at the intended destination.” Even if they won’t live to see the benefits of the decision they make in this barn, future generations will.
On the surface, Women Talking is a story of women coming together to debate and decide their own fate for the very first time. On a larger scale, it is the story of women everywhere, across time and culture, fighting to reclaim our right to exist as true equals in society. It is important to note that Women Talking is based on true events that occurred in Bolivia. In this case, the women were not believed. Even when eight men were finally arrested and imprisoned for these crimes, the attacks continued. It can be disheartening to realize that, despite how far we’ve come, our journey as women isn’t over. But, like Ona’s dragonflies, we can never lose sight of the final destination- both for ourselves, and all the women who will follow us.
By Miriam Toews
216 pages. 2019
About Ashley Power
Ashley Power is a New England native, currently working as a middle school English teacher by day and an aspiring writer by night. When she isn’t burying her nose in a book, you can likely find her cooking vegan food, shopping for vintage clothing, or spending time with her partner and their beloved pup.
Ashley has dabbled in writing for most of her life, and has recently begun working on her first novel. While that project is under wraps (for now!) you can see what she’s up to otherwise over on Instagram: @thebookishbohemian