Toronto: Knopf, c2018.
And now for a book published in this century -- even just this year. I picked this one up as soon as it was published, as I found the topic intriguing. Toews was inspired by a real-life situation in a Mennonite community in South America where the women and girls had been drugged and raped by members in their community. She imagines the conversation that might have occurred amongst the women once they'd figured out what was happening.
Despite the horrible concept, Toews doesn't go too heavily into descriptions of the events, though what she does include is bad enough. One can imagine that not only the actual acts but the betrayal behind them made this insupportable for the women in this story.
In this book, the men of the community have gone to town to speak for and retrieve those other men who've been arrested and held in prison. Taking advantage of this absence, a group of women of all ages meet in a barn to discuss what has happened and what their reaction to this should be: Do Nothing, Stay & Fight, or Leave. Since the women aren't able to read or write, they conscript August Epp, a returnee to their community, to record the minutes for them.
Each woman is a distinct personality with a distinct perspective; they do not all agree. Some of them are gentle and kind, some young and giggly, some brusque and prickly. They argue, they debate, and they plan. And after their 48 hours of debate, they come to an agreement, but you'll have to read this to find out what they might have decided to do.
The voices of the varied women are different enough that this reads a little bit like a play, with characters presenting their opinions to be considered and debated. It breaks down an outsider's assumptions that Mennonite women are all the same, or that their lives are experienced in only one way. I found this illumination of individual women the most fascinating part of the story for me. Their strength is the core of the book, as they learn to trust their own instincts and square them with their beliefs.
I haven't really enjoyed Toews' very popular earlier books, so was surprised by how much I loved this one. It's thoughtful, powerful, with a unique and intriguing format, and has stuck with me.
A favourite moment that sums up a lot:
Salome is laughing. We may feel lost, she says, but we will know we are not losers.
Speak for yourself, says Mejal.
I always do, says Salome. You should try it too.