Thursday, January 2, 2020
Published April 2019 by Bloomsbury USA
Source: checked out from my local library
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.
This is, quite literally, a book about women talking. Nearly all of it is the minutes of two meetings this group of women hold as they try to decide what to do about what has happened to them. I was well into the book when I realized this was all there was going to be. I had expected something more, some action on the women’s part, and I wasn’t sure if nothing but conversation was going to work for me. Then, without me even realizing it, I discovered that these two meetings were really all the book needed. It allowed me to really get to know these characters and the way they live.
The book is not entirely without men. August Epp, a man who has returned to the colony after his father was excommunicated and fled with August and his mother, is taking the “minutes” of these meetings because none of the women read or write. Periodically, a man will pop his head into the loft where the women are secretly meeting and quick thinking is involved to try to prevent the men from figuring out what the women are considering. Despite their differences and disagreements, the women are united in preventing the men from knowing what is happening until they have taken their destiny into their own hands for the first time.
The book is surprisingly funny but also incredibly insightful and thought provoking. The women must decide which of three things they will do about what has happened and they need to decide quickly before the men return from town: do nothing, stay and fight, or flee. The group meeting in the loft has quickly ruled out the first option but making the decision beyond that proves much more difficult, particularly in light of their religion.
Must they forgive the men in order to be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? If they elders have decided the women don't require counseling because they were not conscious when the attacks occurred, then what are they obliged to forgive? How will the Lord find them when the Rapture comes if they are not in Molotschna? If they stay and fight, they will be guilty of the sin of rebellion and of betraying their vow of pacifism; and, if they lost their fight, they would be "plunged deeper into submissiveness and vulnerability." What is the difference between "leaving" and "fleeing?"
These discussions were so interesting and Toews made it clear that all of the women had valid points about what needed to be done and why. These are a group of women with no understanding of the outside world; no ability to read, write, or speak the language of the world they would be venturing out into; no money or possessions of their own (although that makes for another interesting debate); and no ability to even read a map. The question then is this: is it more frightening to stay and face the known dangers or venture off into the unknown?