An extended Reading the Bestsellers review of the 2019 novel by Miriam Toews that was recently made into a movie.
Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.
Vintage Canada, 2019. 240 pages. $22 (e-book $14, audio $36)
Abuse is an uncomfortable subject. Until recent times, it was a topic avoided by polite society, spoken of only in whispers and seldom confronted.
The past few decades have changed that genteel avoidance forever. Revelations of residential school abuses, the #MeToo movement and exposés of predators in Christian organizations have removed the cloak of silence protecting the guilty.
Women Talking by award-winning Canadian writer Miriam Toews is fiction inspired by a real event. Between 2005 and 2009 in Molotschna, a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, over 150 women and girls were drugged and raped by eight men from the colony. In 2011 the men were convicted by a Bolivian court and received lengthy prison sentences.
When the story broke, Toews created a what-if scenario based on the atrocity. She envisioned a group of eight women meeting secretly in a hayloft to discuss their options. Should they do nothing, assenting to the forced forgiveness demanded by Molotschna’s leadership? Should they stay and fight the men of the colony for their rightful share of respect and agency? Or should they leave the colony altogether, striking out for the unknown, for their own safety and the safety of their daughters?
They have a 48-hour window – while the men are in town posting bail for the perpetrators – in which to come to a consensus and act. That awareness of time keeps the tension mounting as the women argue the pros and cons of each option.
Having grown up in Steinbach, Man., the daughter of Mennonite parents, Toews has an intimate understanding of and affection for her former community. She understands the security of belonging to a closeknit religious community, the desire to be obedient to Scripture and the difficulties of living under a patriarchal power structure. She is not dismissive of those who live within such systems, as an outsider might be.
Her familiarity with her subject makes this novel compelling. The characters are real, funny, kind and annoying. The two teenagers express their boredom with the proceedings with typical teenage humour. Longstanding tensions between personalities sidetrack the discussion and require the more patient members to return them to their purpose.
The women have been told by the leadership that if they refuse to forgive their attackers, they will forfeit their place in heaven. One of them asks: Is forgiveness that is coerced true forgiveness? It’s a question that resonates beyond the novel with victims of abuse at the hands of church leaders. Another argues that true forgiveness will be possible only if they leave and are in control of their destinies.
They raise the issue of their primary responsibility according to Scripture – is it to obey their husbands or to protect their children? Eventually they decide that since they are kept illiterate in the colony, their only knowledge of Scripture is what has been interpreted to them by the leaders.
As the discussion continues, they explore the many issues that permeate abusive systems, not as academics but as uneducated women who have lived obediently within such a system and have reached a tipping point.
Toews, although a self-described secular Mennonite, is not an opponent of faith, but of power structures that control and abuse others in the name of God. The crimes committed in Molotschna were extreme, but were they more extreme than the crimes committed in faith-based residential schools? The nature of organizations is to protect the reputation and power of the leadership at the expense of the vulnerable. When Christian churches and organizations rush toward damage control rather than toward justice and protection of the victims, they forget the convicting words of Jesus, “Whatever you have not done for the least of these, you have not done for me.”
The recent movie based on the book earned screenwriter-director Sarah Polley an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and a nomination for best picture. Polley’s adaptation is true to the book and captivates with the stellar acting of its cast.
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