In 2011, news broke worldwide about eight men belonging to a Mennonite Colony in Bolivia being convicted of a series of sexual assaults committed over several years. Over 130 girls and women had been knocked unconscious using an animal tranquilizer and raped by these men. The horror of these facts were amplified by the knowledge that these women were part of a tight knit isolated community and they were made to believe the attacks were the result of ghosts or demons punishing them for their sins. It’s difficult to imagine the challenges these women faced in such a perilous position, especially because this strictly religious and remote community was all they’d ever known. But Miriam Toews has written an “imagined response” to these incidents in a novel that records several women of three different generations secretly meeting in a hayloft to decide how they will proceed. The options are to do nothing, stay and fight or leave. They only have a couple nights to come to a consensus before the men return with the perpetrators who’ve been let out of jail on bail. It’s an urgent, impassioned conversation that considers issues of faith and the meaning of community/family. I found it so bracing how this novel asks what you’d do when the only world you’ve known has betrayed you so egregiously and robbed you of your humanity.
It’s clear from reading this Guardian interview how personal this novel is for Miriam Towes. Having lived in a Mennonite community herself, she feels “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.” It’s impossible to know how anyone would react to an extreme situation like this and the many women portrayed all have very different reactions. At one point a particularly strong-willed character named Salome comments “our responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.” They range from violent anger to pious acceptance to self-destructive despair. It becomes clear over the course of their discussions that these conversations are as much with themselves as with each other for the way they desperately seek to understand and respond to the position they’re in. To create such a multi-layered sense of inner dialogue within such a large cast of characters in such a short novel is truly impressive.
I felt I could understand all the women’s arguments at different points as they plotted out the positive and negatives to their potential course of action. Of course, instinctively I felt the women should leave or physically overcome this male-dominated community. But reading the women’s accounts I was forced to be confronted by the fact of what an extremely isolated existence they’ve lived. They’ve been raised to only know a way of life where they are completely dependent on the men in the village. They aren’t allowed money or an education. They can’t read or write. They’ve never seen a map of the outside world or seen the ocean. They can only even speak a derivative form of Germanic which isn’t spoken by anyone any longer except for Mennonites. So this village is literally their entire world and to leave it would take unimaginable depths of bravery. I was completely captivated by their dilemma and on edge throughout the novel wondering what they’d decide. I also warmed to them as a diverse group of individuals who argue, joke and care for each other in the course of their discussions.
It’s interesting the way Toews handles the dilemma of how to record these women’s conversations when they can’t read or write. She solves this by narrating the novel from the point of view of a man named August, a Mennonite who lived for many years in England after his parents were excommunicated from the community but he re-joined it as a teacher. He conspires with the women recording their dialogue and assisting them in their plans. His presence adds another dimension to their conversations and another plotline as he has an especially close relationship with one of the women named Ona. It also reinforces the fact that the world has no access to these women’s voices and stories without being filtered through the perspective of a man. To hear these women conversing and have their stories recorded feels like the first step towards achieving a true form of independence and asserting their right to exist apart from the men who have always dominated and controlled their lives. Ona states at one point that “We are aware of many things, instinctively… but to have them articulated in a certain narrative way is pleasing and fun.”