Book review: Women Talking by Miram Toews

I couldn’t read Women Talking in print. I couldn’t get past the mention of meeting minutes, and this book is written as the minutes of the meetings of women from a Mennonite colony. It’s a clever way to frame a semi-fictional account, but I couldn’t help but feel triggered. I have taken over seven hundred sets of minutes in my life. I’ve counted. That’s enough minutes.

But because I admire Miram Toews (pronounced Taves,) and because Sarah Polley is making this into a movie, I read it again, and this time as an audiobook. At first I felt uneasy, worried I might be lost if I didn’t have the print list of ‘attendees’ to refer to, which includes the names of the women and how they’re related. But I didn’t need the list. It’s clear how the women relate to each other, and the familial relationships are only mentioned as necessary.

Women Talking is based on a true crime that occurred to several women of a colony. The women hold meetings to discuss how to proceed and explore their options in the framework of their religion and knowledge of the outside world. The minutes are taken by a man of the colony who for many reasons is an outsider among his people, and who makes an excellent meeting secretary/narrator. Who better than an outsider to help we readers, the ultimate outsiders, understand what’s happening. The fact that the women, all illiterate, insist on a written record of their meetings only adds to the value placed on the text, like a play within a play; we readers value the text even more because they do.

This book brought up unexpected memories and questions for me. My paternal grandmother’s family were Dutch Mennonites who immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s to escape the Bolsheviks. They settled in Saskatchewan just in time for the Great Depression.

My grandmother could speak a few words in ‘Plattdeutsch,’ or ‘low German,’ which is what the women in this book speak. She was born in a barn on the Canadian prairies. She was allowed to go to school long enough to complete a 6th grade education — a real accomplishment for a farming family at the time. She fell in love with a German Lutheran on a nearby farm, which was a big no-no. They eloped and it took her father’s death may years later for her to be able to see her family again.

Women Talking made me wonder how closely the characters resemble my ancestors in beliefs and customs. I wish I knew more about this part of my heritage, but I didn’t ask when I had the chance. I grew up more familiar with the Amish and Hudderites than the hard-core colony Mennonites, and I may have been embarrassed. What I know are lame jokes, like: 

How do you get a Mennonite woman out of the kitchen?

Grease her hips and throw a chocolate bar in the living room.

There are cookbooks a-plenty to support the fact that Mennonites are terrific bakers. 

But I didn’t learn much Mennonite history from my grandmother. I know her mother always wore a hairnet over a severely pulled-back bun. I know my great-grandfather inflicted severe physical punishment on his children. I know that my grandmother’s oldest sister had a baby out of wedlock and that she was later forced to marry the father. My grandmother never said ‘rape’ but I heard all the words around it.

My grandmother baked a lot, maybe to stay connected to her memories of her family. I loved her dearly, but after reading this book, I admire her even more for the courage it would have taken for her to leave her family and choose her own life.

Women Talking is not only a book about courage and communal relationships. It’s about the act of thinking, of questioning one’s beliefs, and of possibility. I recommend this book to anyone craving inspiration, kinship and courage.

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