Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s finest writers and she comes from Steinbach, my home town. I read this book after I had already heard a lot of criticism about it. Most of that criticism came from Steinbachers. Some felt that Miriam Toews was not true to Mennonite colonies. They weren’t like that some said. Others didn’t like her approach. The book was largely about women talking with each other. The women had been subjected to horrific abuse by the Mennonite men in the colony and were meeting to discuss what to do about it.
My view is entirely different. I loved this book. To use the approach of Northrop Frye in the book The Educated Imagination, the book is not about abuse in a Mennonite colony. It is much more than that. It is a book about women talking about their own exploitation by men and what, if anything they should do about it. It is a book about rebellion from exploitation. And I don’t think there are many more important things than that. In Aristotle’s sense it is a vital and fundamental universal theme. And I think Toews was very true to that theme. For me, she made it come alive. And that is what great books do. They make it real. Even if it did not really happen. It was still real.
Many things were interesting in that book. The women wanted to have the freedom to think. Again a universal theme of vital significance. Did not every child in every home and in every country want exactly that? We all want to think and must escape from the domination of our family, our church, our clique, or our friends. We all want to break free and that is never easy to do.
I remember years ago I was at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. There was a circus-style show involving a trainer and some chimpanzees. During the show the trainer made a mistake in improperly chaining the chimp to his place on stage. The chimp took one look around and made a burst for freedom. It might have been entirely irrational. What was the chimp going to do in Winnipeg? But that burst for freedom was glorious. The chimp took off and the trainer ran after him. From the stage we saw them a city block away. The show was over. But the bolt for freedom was real and it lasted in my mind forever.
In the novel, the women challenge the patriarchy. Around the world women are doing that. One of the women says, “We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. We are grandmothers.” Yes. But they are rebels! They are talkers. And they are thinkers.
In this novel some of the women talked about making a bolt for freedom. Should they or shouldn’t they? I found it fascinating. I think this is one of Toews’ best novels ever. I think it is a great novel. Read it and think.