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Women Talking
by Miriam Toews

Published: 2019-04-02
Hardcover : 240 pages
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National Bestseller

“This amazing, sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real-life event, could be right out of The Handmaid's Tale.” --Margaret Atwood, on Twitter

"Scorching . . . Women Talking is a wry, freewheeling novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions ...

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National Bestseller

“This amazing, sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real-life event, could be right out of The Handmaid's Tale.” --Margaret Atwood, on Twitter

"Scorching . . . Women Talking is a wry, freewheeling novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions of free will, collective responsibility, cultural determinism, and, above all, forgiveness." --New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice

One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.

While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women?all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in?have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?

Based on real events and told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.



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Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. This story is told through August Epp’s notes from the women’s meetings. Why do you think Toews chose August to be the narrator? Do you believe he faithfully recounts the discussions and plans of the women of Molotschna? How do you think his gender and his experiences shape his telling?

2. When the perpetrators of the rapes return to Molotschna “the women will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men…the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.” (pp 5) This role of “forgiveness” is two-fold: in the first case it is a theological requirement for eternal life in heaven, and crucial tenet of the women’s faith. On the other hand, forgiveness ensures the survival of the colony as it has always been, with a rigid patriarchal structure and male control. Discuss the principle of forgiveness in Women Talking. How would you approach forgiveness in the face of such trauma?

3. In Women Talking, as with her other books, Miriam Toews’ Mennonite roots are a clear influence on the narrative. Discuss whether the thematic elements of the story of the women of Molotschna would be as powerful if told by a non-Mennonite.

4. Peters, the Bishop of Molotschna, denied medical treatment to Miep after she was raped multiple times and contracted an STI because he was worried the local doctor would “gossip” about the colony. In the wake of learning this, Miep’s mother, Salome, attempted to kill the men responsible with a scythe. It was only then that Peters contacted the authorities about the rapists, as their arrest and imprisonment would protect them from the women of the colony. Discuss the emphasis on what needs to be “protected” in this case by the religious leader of the colony?

5. On page 66, Mariche says that “our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving these goals.” Mejal replies, “But not all men,” to which Ona responds: “Perhaps not men per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s heart and minds.” These ideas have considerable currency in contemporary society. How do the women of Molostchna differentiate between the men and boys they love and wish to care for—their husbands, brothers, sons—and the toxic ideas which led to both the society in which they reside, and the horrific acts committed against them?

6. The term “revolutionary” comes up throughout the novel. How is the process of decision making revolutionary for the women of Molotschna? Is it merely the act of women making a decision for themselves within the patriarchal context, or is it something more? Is this a uniquely feminine type of revolution?

7. Are you surprised that the women of Molotschna never appear to lose their faith in God despite what religion has cost them? The women make plans to leave the colony, but why don’t they choose to leave the Mennonite faith entirely?

8. On page 114–115 the women discuss who will educate the boys and men of the colony, who will “teach them to behave like human beings.” Some of the women of Molotschna believe it is the men’s job to learn this for themselves and act accordingly, others think it is women’s responsibility to teach the boys and men the proper way in which to behave in the world. In today’s society, who bears the responsibility for teaching men, and particularly boys, how to live respectfully and equitably with girls and women? Has this changed in recent years? If it has, why and in response to what?

9. The women of Molotschna could neither read nor write; and yet they wished to have the minutes of their meetings documented. In the end, they didn’t even think to bring these minutes with them. “The words were futile, a document. Life was the only thing. Migration, movement, freedom. We want to protect our children and we want to think. We want to keep our faith. We want the world.” (pp 208) Despite the women’s arguments about the precision and meaning of so many of the words that they spoke to one another, the record of their words as committed to paper by August is ultimately left behind. Why do you think this is? And why do you think they asked August to document their meeting in the first place? Without the written record, will the women be able to achieve the freedom they so desire? What would their lives have been like if they could read?

10. August’s revelation of the identity of his actual father, as well as the disclosure of where the anesthetic used to rape the women was located, suggests that sexual violence was a long-term, ongoing issue at the colony and at the highest levels of the religious hierarchy. And towards the very end of the novel, there is a sense of foreboding of whether the women can truly get away from the colony and start anew. Can they? Did the novel end hopefully or fearfully for you?

11. In the Acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Toews says: “I wish to acknowledge the girls and women living in patriarchal, authoritarian (Mennonite and non-Mennonite) communities across the globe. Love and solidarity.” Women Talking is indisputably a Mennonite story—and yet, it parallels the experience of women in patriarchal societies, both historically and today. What are some examples of these societies? Does Women Talking express themes and experiences that are universal? If so, how?

Suggested by Members

Where do you think the women went?
by lizblair (see profile) 03/07/20

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  "Read women talking..."by Liz B. (see profile) 03/07/20

Read women talking it never ends. It is written from an interesting perspective, as it written from meeting mtinutes. It raises good questions about love and faith and family. The ending is a non ending.... (read more)

by Jordan B. (see profile) 07/22/19

by Teri M. (see profile) 05/21/19

by Carolyn T. (see profile) 01/28/19

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