Do Nothing. Stay and Fight. Leave. When a group of women debate between possible courses of action in a hayloft, August Epp, the man assigned to take the minutes of their meeting, questions the utility of such a record for a group who cannot read. Ona Friesen answers him with her account of witnessing unlikely play between a squirrel and a rabbit, the two animals feinting at each other. At this point, the reader assumes Ona implies that the women need a witness to lend credibility to their deliberations—which is fitting enough, since women’s testimonies are always in doubt in Molotschna.
For eight years, almost every woman in the ultra-conservative Mennonite colony has suffered night-time rapes, waking up in “pain, often groggy and bleeding.” Peters, the community leader, has consistently dismissed the rapes as imaginary or the work of “ghosts, or Satan.” It is only recently that the demons have been revealed to be eight of the colony’s men sneaking into houses, etherizing the women with cow anesthetic before brutally assaulting them. When Salome Frieser’s toddler daughter is attacked, the enraged mother takes a scythe to the suspect. It is at this point that the police are finally called to whisk the suspects into protective custody, away from the women’s rage.
Since Molotschna does not allow the women the recourse of the criminal justice system, Peters is now urging the women to forgive the suspects so that both the women and the men will have a chance for “salvation.” Failure to forgive the suspects will mean excommunication for the women, who know very little about life outside their colony. With the men away in town to bail out the suspects, the women have only two days to organize their response.
This is where Women Talking opens, diving straight into the women’s momentous deliberations. The novel is informed by real-life rapes that occurred in the Manitoba Mennonite Colony, located in Bolivia. In her novel, Toews deliberately focuses on the women’s response rather than on the men’s crimes, which are only glimpsed through details that crop up in August’s record (for example, when he notes that Greta Loewen has to wear false teeth because of her rape, in which her attacker crushed all her teeth "to death”). By prioritizing the women’s debate about their future over the reconstruction of the men’s crimes, Toews offers “an act of female imagination,” as she says in the foreword to the novel. Another unusual choice is a male narrator for a story that belongs to women, the secret behind which is revealed only at the novel's end. Chosen as record-taker because of his fluency with English and his status as an outsider, the excommunicated August has returned recently to Molotschna to deal with past demons. Judged “too effeminate” by the colony folk, August is in love with Ona, his childhood friend.
Not all Molotschnan women participate in the deliberations; most have already chosen the “Do Nothing” option, while others have assigned the women of the Loewen and Friesen clans to decide their fates. Each clan includes a mother (Greta and Agata), two daughters (Mariche and Mejal; Ona and Salome) and a teenage granddaughter (Neitje and Autje). Taking on the quality of a Socratic dialogue, the women's conversation forms the heart of the novel, moving between practical concerns—where they will live if they leave, how Agata will take along her aging mares, Cheryl and Ruth—and deep, philosophical enquiry. One of the biggest dilemmas they debate is transgressing biblical law. When Mejal notes that the Bible decrees that women “obey” their husbands, Salome retorts that this is uncertain knowledge: because the women are illiterate, none of them has read the Bible for herself. Debating the question of forgiveness as a Christian duty, Agata muses if coerced forgiveness is forgiveness at all. Sometimes quibbling over the precise use of a single word, the women, however, are united on one point:...
(The entire section is 1,229 words.)