Miriam Toews’s Mennonite Conscience

In her new book, “Women Talking,” the beloved Canadian novelist directs her gaze at the moral failings of the Protestant sect in which she was raised.

Comments: 14

  1. I haven't read anything Ms. Toews wrote and realize that I probably should. But why does the Times minimze her work by presenting it as a call for refornm of a small sect? It seems more about the overall relationship between faith and authority. Also, it seems a trope that communities that make moral demands upon their members are secretly more rotten than society at large. Hopefully Toews is more insightful than this and her favorable reviews are not simply an exercisse in schadenfreude.

  2. As a Mennonite woman I affirm that Toews says it right:“If you don’t end up filled with self-loathing and or guilt and or inexplicable rage, living in that community, then you are not paying attention,” Toews said. Living within the patriarchal, heteronormative Mennonite Church can kill my spirit. Living beyond the warmth of its sheltering community can also kill my spirit. To be a Mennonite woman is to walk this line of being somehow both inside and outside of the community, ever trying to maintain ones sense of self and somehow remain whole.

  3. I heard the author interviewed on NPR just recently. I am continually appalled by the depraved depths into which sexually deprived people fall. Is this different from the secret sex practiced by the men and women forced to be celibate in the Catholic Church? I think not. There are now countless stories also about nuns, the dead babies they buried and the terrible restrictions the young women suffered who were unlucky enough to end up in Irish laundries and other institutional abnormalities. The glories of institutional religious power are and have been relentlessly repressive physical manifestations; in the case of this isolated sect, horribly violent.

  4. Thanks for this portrait. I have read Toews "Irma Toth', and would recommend it (painful as much of it is). The events in Bolivia in the Manitoba community did not end with the trial in 2011 of 9 men. I've read Jean Friedman-Rudolvsky's 1st piece (for Time) from 2011. 2 years later she returned for a closer look at the events, published as 'Ghost Rapes...Bolivia". This is a must read, I believe, before sitting down with "Women Talking'. It is horrible but believable that women in this community feel unable to flee what may be continued violations. The use of a gas, insecticide based, to render the home dwellers both unconscious and numb is unspeakably cruel. What came after is hard to encompass. Yet the women are unable to leave the community, lacking skills to survive or manage the culture of either Bolivia or the wider world. Joseph Boyden is much honored for his 3 novels in Canada (with the Scotiabank Giller award). They make hard reading! Each novel is a tapestry, richly woven, with the thread being first nation people, culture and destiny. That is what we read novels for. I'll try Toews latest work. But I worry that no novel can grasp the horrible cycle of dependence of women in a closed community, nor the way in which they are viewed and used as objects worthy no more care than a throw rug.

  5. “I hope the Mennonite patriarchy and the misogyny inherent in the fundamentalism that conservative Mennonites preach, that one day will change.” With very few exceptions, patriarchy and misogyny are two of the basic tenets of all organized regions. My respect and admiration goes to Ms. Toews for having the courage to bring this to people's attention.

  6. The only Mennonite female I knew was raised in a small community in northern Idaho. Unhappily married, she divorced him, stayed in the fold and was shunned (church members would not talk to her, made her eat by herself, among other less dramatic punishments) for 12 years before she left to start over somewhere else. She then began a wide-ranging hegira of personal, religious exploration that ranged from Buddha to hard-core evangelical christianity (where she found the cult-like ethos she was raised in and remains with to this day). Not sure she ever found the inner peace she searched for.

  7. Toews has written beautifully about painful decisions, including a sister who seems to have been complicit in the suicide of her brilliant sibling... after years of refusing to do that. Toews shows unselfish love in this aid to a woman in a most difficult and yet ennobling decision - to help a person you love who loves beauty, music, and you but not enough to overcome her depression and angst to go on living. The ironical, witty protagonist can't laugh off her sister's darkest need. She helps fulfill it when her sister cannot do it alone. And the reader in my club, wealthy, high-achieving women, wept for the pain of such dedication to another. Though none were Mennonites, all were deeply sensitive to love's deepest, most mysterious demands. Toews is more than regional or even national. She is a reporter of the universality of loving's steepest demands and most secret rewards.

  8. My compliments to Ms. Porter for an engaging and balanced article on Ms. Toews' origins and career priorities. I am considering reading the mentioned books, which, if you knew me, would be quite surprising! It is crucial (for me) that both got the job done here without resorting to the wholesale condemnation/one-sided critique of white maleness, et al. I especially credit Ms. Toews for that; true, she does mention the "Mennonite Patriarchy." but it doesn't ring false or gratuitous, because there actually is one. What I get is the sense that here is a person, a woman, with a story to tell. Somehow, the calm are the best expositors of human injustice.

  9. Have to recommend "Stelle Licht" ("Silent Light") as a stunning film that draws out the community's pushes and pulls among and across several generations, including from alien Mexican radio. Ms. Toews does her role beautifully.

  10. My mother's parents were born into Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania in the late 1800's. My grandparents relocated to the Kansas prairie early in their lives, married and raised their family on a homestead farm that is now a suburban subdivision of Kansas City, Kansas. It occurs to me that there is a kind of diffuse 'Mennonite diaspora' in North America, and elsewhere, descendants of those fiercely devout early settlers, struggling still, after decades even in this modern 'world of the English,' to figure out how and where we belong, in a society increasingly identified by a Trumpian ethos, whose nihilistic, materialistic mentality echoes in some respects the same moral and ethical vacuity that drove our European ancestors from their home.

  11. I met, by accident, Miriam in the Winnipeg airport (she was behind me in the security line) and this was after I had read her book, A Complicated Kindness. She was unassuming, kind and humble, and made me want to read all of her works, since her words are like her - very endearing. For those who think that these books - because of the subject - are not for them, think again!

  12. Thank you for this fine article. I saw Stellet Licht ("Silent Light," not "Silent Night") some years ago, and found it quite extraordinary. The film is remarkable in its contemplation of the Mennonite community. Your story about Ms. Toews is a revelation to me, and an encouragement to read her work. A wise friend once said to me, "the hardest family to leave is a conflicted family," and I suspect that this applies to communities as well. People who feel compelled to leave the community for the sake of their own well-being still, in a vestigial way, wish and hope for recognition, for an acknowledgement of their own vision. Thank you for the inspiration to start reading Ms. Towes's work.

  13. Proselytism aside, Mennonites, spartan, pacific, modest and community-minded, represent extraordinarily well-lived lives. The moral failings alluded to are perhaps those of our species more than the sect. Like the Amish, these Anabaptists, some of whom my wife and I have the privilege of knowing, will I hope retain that palpable moral quality that informs their daily lives and continue to be in the country, if not entirely of it.