Between 2005 and 2009, in a Mennonite community called the Manitoba Colony in a remote part of Bolivia, women and girls were systematically attacked, sexually assaulted, raped and abused. Some of them who were pregnant at the time of their violent assault lost their babies, others as young as three years old were raped, and many women were raped repeatedly. Their rapists used an animal anesthetic spray that caused their victims and other family members in the home to become unconscious and not remember the assault, but in the morning there was evidence that the assault took place- blood, dirt, semen and bruises. Eventually one of the men was caught and he named eight other men and after a lengthy trial in Bolivia, the men were convicted in 2011. However, in 2013, while those men were still in jail, it was reported that similar assaults were still taking place in the Manitoba Colony. https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-48265703
This novel is based on these real life events. In this version however, the men of the community are planning to go to the city and pay the bail so that the accused men can return to the community while they await their trial. While they are gone, a group of the women gather and try to decide what to do in the face of this dire news. Should they stay and forgive these men? Should they stay and fight against the injustice and culture that allowed this to happen to them? Or should they go, leaving the safety of the colony behind for some unknown place? These women enlist the services of the colony’s school master to sit with them and take down their conversation and translate it into English so there will be a record of their deliberations. The novel, then revolves around the discussions the women have over the course of three days.
Toews is so effective at bringing these women to life: Ona Friesen, the spinster who is pregnant now as the result of her rape, Agata, Ona’s mother, Salome, Ona’s sister whose three year old daughter was raped, Greta Loewen whose rapist covered her mouth with such force that he dislodged almost all her teeth, Mariche Loewen, Mejal Loewen and two teenagers Autje Loewen and Neitji Friesen. As they wrestle with this life changing decision, they must also define what is just and what their faith requires of them, but there are also lighthearted moments where we hear stories of Salome’s horses, or the stories of their life in the community. By listening to their meandering conversation we get a sense of the magnitude and scope of what they are asking of themselves and each other as they discuss their options. All the while, August, our note taker and narrator gives us insights into the lives of these women who despite their their limited understanding of the world; they have never seen a map, never learned Spanish and never learned to read or write, still carry within themselves a profound wisdom and a longing for justice.
Toews has created one of the most memorable books about women I have ever read. Toews, who is a product of the Mennonite culture and tradition, knows these women intimately. She understands the rhythms of their lives and the limitations under which they live. I was so resistant to reading this book because the subject matter seemed so heavy, but I now regret not reading it sooner. This book has something very powerful and empowering to say in this age of #METOO, because it is in fact a manifesto written by a group of women who refuse to be victims and take control of their own lives and we all need more more examples of that kind of courage!
Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)
Recommend this book to: Marian, Lauren, Sharon and Keith.
Book Study Worthy? YES
Read in ebook format.