Miriam Toews imagines her way into an insular community grappling with sexual assault

In her new novel, women in a Mennonite colony plot their own liberation.

Early in Miriam Toews’s Women Talk­ing, a woman speaks about her horses, which are named Ruth and Cheryl. When Ruth and Cheryl are attacked by a neighbor’s dogs, their owner reports, their “instinct is to bolt.” The horses do not “organize meetings to determine their next course of action,” she says pointedly to women who have organized meetings to determine their next course of action. “They run.”        

Women Talking is a brutal phantasmagoria in which horses have women’s names and women are treated like horses. Mining sexual violence, patriarchy, religion, and the meaning of forgiveness and pacifism, the book is feminist dystopian fiction in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, Vox, and The Water Cure. But where the what-ifs that populate those books’ imagined landscapes—What if fertility were your only currency? What if you could not leave your island? What if you were allowed only 100 words per day?—are speculative, Women Talking is built on actual events. Knowing that the novelist ­didn’t have to conjure an entire world but merely color in an existing one lends it an unnerving quality. This may be fiction, but that doesn’t mean it’s not based in fact.

Toews’s novel takes its cues from bizarre events that unfolded in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, called Manitoba Colony. In the lowlands of that country, Old Colony Mennonites live in agricultural collectives, with an Amish-like rejection of electricity and cars but more self-governance and with little interaction with their Bolivian neighbors except in business transactions. Having been promised religious freedom, the right to run their own schools, and exemption from military service, the Mennonite colonizers were free to create their own ministates.