Last Updated on December 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1229
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.
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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 rapes are symptoms of a long-held “pernicious” mindset, where the men have always treated the women worse than animals.
“When our men have used us up so that we look 60 when we’re 30 and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters,” says Salome.
With their choices whittled down to staying or leaving, the women debate the pros and cons of each decision. An enormous deterrent to leaving is the women’s love for the men of their families, especially their children. Should the cut-off age for boys who are to accompany their mothers be twelve or fifteen? Are thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys capable of the kind of violence which the women want to escape? In depicting the enormity of the women’s dilemma, Toews paradoxically draws attention to the strength of their response. Each woman has individual difficulties which she handles with grace. Unmarried, philosophical Ona is pregnant from her “unwelcome visitor,” as the rapists are euphemistically referred to by Peters. Prickly Mariche is routinely beaten up by her monstrous husband Klass, while fiery Salome of the “Vesuvian” eyes may have to leave Aaron, her fifteen-year-old son, behind.
However, even as the debate ticks away, so does real life. On the evening of June 6, Klass returns to the colony unexpectedly so he can take the old mares Cheryl and Ruth to auction off in town the next day. The women manage to conceal their plans from Klass, but the unexpected intrusion electrifies them and August into action. Autje and Neitje leave Ruth and Cheryl at the neighboring colony with their friends, the “Koop boys,” to keep them safe from the auction. Agata secretly loads up a buggy with food supplies from the “summer kitchen,” while August procures a map, dynamite, and the safe in which the women’s earnings from weaving are kept. Though the women’s deliberations are still not concluded, it seems a decision has been made.
Matters come to a boil the next day when the Koop boys, who have accompanied Autje and Neitje back to Molotschna, claim there is a fire raging to the north, which might force the men to return early. Skeptical as the older women are about the boys’ story, they understand the need to act immediately. In a stunning reversal, the women seize control of the belladonna-laced anesthetic used in the rapes. With no time to determine his willingness, Salome sprays her son unconscious so she can take him along, while August is instructed to keep the Koop boys doused in anesthetic to neutralize their danger. Gathering their beloved animals and loading their children in buggies, the women leave, and it is only then that August understands the full import of Ona’s story about the squirrel and the rabbit.
Just as Ona received the sight of the animals as an unexpected benediction, August too took the women’s testimony. Thus, the point of the exercise was never the women being witnessed by August, but melancholy August taking in life and hope by witnessing the women’s transformation. Filled with nervous exhilaration, August watches the women’s wagons disappear from sight, wondering if they are moving into a literal and figurative fire. He does not know for sure, but he finds it an encouraging sign that the wind is clean of smoke and despair.