Miriam Toews sets “Women Talking,” her seventh novel, in the confines of a hayloft on Mennonite property known as the Molotschna Colony. The women of the title convene to discuss how to respond to what colony elders refer to as “unwelcome visitors”: “Between 2005 and 2009, more than three hundred girls and women of Molotschna were made unconscious and attacked in their own beds. On average, an attack occurred every three or four days.”
According to Toews, her novel is “a reaction through fiction to real … events … in a remote Mennonite colony.” Though the bulk of the text is presented as “Minutes of the Women Talking,” the minutes must be filtered through a man — August Epps, whose relationship with Molotschna has its own complexities — “because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves.”
On occasion, straightforward exposition is the simplest way to depict life on the colony: “Molotschna, like all our colonies, is self-policed”; “The women are speaking in Plautdietsch, or Low German, the only language they know”; “It’s not unusual for a family to have fifteen children.”
Toews allows much of the physical detail to speak for itself, glancing casually on the hand of Mariche Loewen, whose index finger “has been bitten off at the knuckle,” and whose eye is “cloudy, veiled in white, from having a hoof pick flung at it.”
In the hayloft, the women sit on milking buckets and saddles, and “Ona Freisen keeps an empty feed pail beside her because she is pregnant and experiencing nausea.” Violence is thick in the air of the hayloft, even during seemingly playful moments, as when Autje pretends to commit suicide by jumping out of a window onto a stack of hay bales. Toews manages to make room for levity in the darkness of the colony — a darkness both literal and figurative, as “there is no electrical light anywhere, inside or out,” August Epps tells us, adding, “The houses are small tombs at night.”
In the hayloft, the women try to choose among two options: “to stay or to leave.” (A third group of women prefer to “Do Nothing” after the attacks.) The debate takes on matters of philosophical magnitude as well as practical concerns. There is the matter of trying to acquire a map: “Autje continues: We don’t know where to go. Neitje laughs. She adds: We don’t even know where we are!”
Toews holds her readers in the claustrophobic air of the hayloft, where the window “is filthy and crawling with flies and looks out at … infinity.” The tension in this marvelous work comes less from the decision — to stay or to go? — than from the insular world the women already inhabit.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Narrative, Glimmer Train, The Millions, LennyLetter and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Miriam Toews.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 216 pages, $24.
Event: Wordplay Festival, May 11-12, downtown Minneapolis.