Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Based on a true story, Women Talking by Miriam Toews covers two days during which a group of women from a strict, isolated Mennonite community debate what to do after eight of their male community members, for years, used animal medication render unconscious and rape women in the community, from grandmothers down to toddlers. While the true story took place in a Mennonite community that settled in Bolivia, Toews’s novel subtly implies the fictional community of Molotschna is located in Canada, where Toews herself was raised Mennonite.

Because the women cannot read nor write, they talk through their options — to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. One of the more independent women asks August Epp to take notes of their meeting. Although he grew up in Molotschna, August’s family was excommunicated when he was twelve, so they moved to England and lived a modern life, with planes, cars, college, etc. After his mother dies, and long after his father disappeared, August is prompted to return to Molotschna in lieu of the suicide he’s planned. At the meeting, August diligently takes notes in English (the women speak “low-German”), adding translation notes or asides to explain something out of context, or even reminders for himself when a debate point sparks a memory.

Much of the debate is how to save their children and still follow the rules of their faith so they may enter heaven. For example, after one woman learned her three-year-old daughter was sick with an STD after being raped, she tried to kill the eight accused with a scythe. To protect the men, the community preacher had the men arrested so they would be “safe” in jail in the city. But now he’s rallied the rest of the men in the community to raise bail money so the rapists can return, giving the victims a chance to ask for forgiveness, a requirement to enter heaven. Thus, the perpetrators are out of the community for just two days.

Women Talking reads like a philosophy text, or a court reporter’s notes. We see point and counterpoint over and over in this novella. Yes, the women agree they must follow their Bible, but wait, someone notes, the Bible has been interpreted for them by the very men who raped them, meaning they may not be able to trust it. If they stay, are they following God’s will when every one of them confess they have murder in their hearts, and because Mennonites are pacifists, to stay and potentially act on their violent desires would prevent them from going to heaven? Does that mean it is more correct according to their faith to leave?

I kept forgetting the characters were all related, because I am reading Women Talking through my own cultural experience in which a community is made up of unrelated families. Not true in Toews novella. August noted one woman was another woman’s mother/aunt, for example, demonstrating the crossover in marriage and birth. Another reminder came through Ona, the dreamer, and Salome, the mother of the sick toddler. They were rather antagonistic, and I kept thinking they were from two families, perhaps rivals, only to be reminded they are sisters. Eventually, I wondered if it mattered whether I kept them all straight. The talking was the important part, and what they had to say, the way they used experience, logic, and faith to come to a decision about their three options, was interesting.

There were several characters I could not tell apart, though a few stand out for specific character traits: an older woman with edema, the smoker, the teens who are both scamps, the one who tried to kill the rapists, the one with whom August has been in love his whole life, etc. There were a few I did not remember, but they would jump in occasionally with contributions to the debate. For this reason, I would like to see the movie; perhaps a face will help me distinguish, though I’m not certain distinguishing characters is the important part of this story.

Women Talking is a short book, a novella, meaning you can get through it all in one or two sittings. Thanks to Toews’s choice to have August narrate, which seems odd on the surface because he is a man in a women’s story, I never forgot I was reading a different culture. All his notes about translation or how much information the women have emphasizes the difference between Molotschna and us readers. Case in point, one concern if they leave is that none can read, true, but also no one can read a map, which they don’t have in their community. The women literally don’t know where they are in the world. As Biscuit said when we discussed Women Talking, “Your education is limited to what you need where you are.”


  1. This sounds like the sort of book I’d be interested in … the tossing around of ideas, the small special community, the different culture, the gender issue, the novella form.

    I’ve heard of Toews but have never read her.


    • Toews is big in Canada, so I found this novel (and author) via my Canadian blogger friends. Strangely, the community that the novel is based were Mennonites who lived in Bolivia in a colony named Manitoba (so confusing). I’m not sure if they were permanent missionaries, or what.


  2. I recently saw the film but skipped the book because I generally struggle with Toews (though I loved A Complicated Kindness). I wonder if the book would add much as, from your review and others I’ve read, the film seems exceptionally faithful.


    • Honestly, sometimes there are just movies I want to watch without reading the book. I want the story, but I don’t want to invest more than two hours in it. A lighthearted example would be Crazy Rich Asians. I enjoyed the setting and the story, and I support the all-Asian and almost all-Asian crew, so I saw it in theater. But, I never picked up the book nor did I read the sequels.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I still haven’t read this book, but the more details I hear about it, the more my heart aches, especially knowing its based on a true story. This book also makes me angry at religion, and how it has been used to justify hateful actions, and keeping women down. I know the author isn’t trying to make us angry at religion, but I can’t help myself! How is this far, keeping women from reading and writing, it just feels wrong to me.


  4. Your right that the characters were sometimes hard to distinguish and I wonder how that would be in a movie. I liked the way that emphasized how closely knit this community was – there weren’t the same separations and distinctions between families that we usually see. Everyone’s lives crossed over each other in multiple ways.


    • I noticed the movie has several famous actors, so I’m thinking I would be able to tell them all apart. However, in the book, because it is written as meeting notes, it’s not easy for the author to include small details that would remind us who’s who.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved this book, but read it when it first came out so the details are fuzzy. But I remember being fascinated by their discussion. And horrified that it was based on a true story. I’m looking forward to the movie!


  6. Like Laura, I enjoyed A Complicated Kindness; I really want to read this and I hadn’t grasped it was a novella so that helps. I would be confused by the film with my face-blindness unless they’re all very different!!


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