If you are a Mennonite who has read Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, then the big question on your mind will be same one that’s on mine:
Will the Mennonite community forgive Miriam Toews for having committed the grievous sin of conflating two different groups of Mennonites into one?
The last time we dealt with this issue, the Old Colony Mennonites were merged with Old Order/Amish Mennonites. That time, I pointed out that about 500 years separated the two groups. It was a pretty big oopsy and it left people like me dizzy with existential dissonance.
Miriam Toews left the Old Order and Amish alone but there’s still some Menno dissonance – this time because of how she merged together the Old Colony Mennonites of Bolivia with the Evangelical (Kleine Gemeinde) Mennonites of her own experience.
This may not seem very important, I know.
But it is.
So I’m bothering telling you so.
In interviews, Toews justified her connection to the Mennonites of Bolivia by pointing out that her ancestors came from the Molotschna Colony in Russia and that she was related to these women, that she “could have been one of them.”
“Oh, come on, Miriam,” I yelled at my computer screen, where I read the article. “Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference between Molotschna and Old Colony Mennonites?!?”
She might know. But if so, she wasn’t admitting it to the media.
(I like to think that she does know and that calling the colony in her novel the Molotschna Colony is a sort of literary wink telling those in the know that she knows that we know that she knows that she’s not really writing about Old Colony Mennonites. But I might be overthinking this.)
For those of my readers who don’t know, the Old Colony Mennonites didn’t come from the Molotschna Colony. They came from Chortitza Colony, the so-called “Old Colony.” It’s true the two colonies were only about 100 km apart but if Steinbach is 40 miles and 40 years from Winnipeg, then the hundred K separating these two Menno centres is over half a century.
Again – I admit that this might not seem very important.
I also admit that there were some similarities between the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites of Molotschna and the conservative branch of the Chortitza Mennonites who eventually became the Old Colony. The Kleine Gemeinde was the result of an early schism in the Molotschna Colony, splitting from their neighbours in 1814 in order to establish a more sober and less worldly Church. The Old Colony only really developed a solid group identity after it came to Canada in the 1870s but even before that they were the most traditionalist of the Mennonites in Chortitza. Both groups were opposed to higher education and in favour of a liberal use of Church discipline. And they both tried hard to stay true to tradition as a strategy for pursuing purity.
There’s no evidence they ever approved of each other but it’s possible that the groups were similar enough that a bit of cross-breeding occurred, justifying Miriam Toews’ claim of consanguinity.
Not likely but, sure, possible.
And that’s not really the point. For all their nineteenth-century similarities, the two groups diverged dramatically in the twentieth century. Both the Old Colony and the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites came to Canada in the 1870s (they weren’t the only ones; the Bergthal Mennonites were also among those who came, which is where some of my ancestors come into the story). All the groups that migrated in those years tried to resist the change that would come from mingling with people outside of their faith group. But the Old Colony were the most strident, and quite possibly most successful, in pursuing this goal.
Most importantly, the Old Colony strenuously resisted the influence of both American and German religious reformers who offered up new hymns, and introduced radical innovations like Bible study and Sunday School, and a more internal faith that emphasized belief and emotional commitment as much as behaviour and practice. It’s because of the integration of these influences into the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite faith that we find well-known hymns in Women Talking, discussions about the Bible, and questions about internal faith.
So when I say it’s an open question as to whether we’ll forgive Miriam her conflation of Mennotypes, I’m not talking about her mixing up a few details about how close our ancestors in Ukraine were to Odessa (700 km). The problem isn’t even that she made the women all illiterate although it’s well-known that both boys and girls learn to read and write German among the Old Colony and Kleine Gemeinde (not advanced levels of literacy in the Old Colony, to be sure, but more than nothing). Nor that the age of adulthood is cited as fifteen which might be the common age of baptism in the Kleine Gemeinde but is young for the Old Colony. None of us will even complain much about the unlikely biography of the man, August, whose family ran off to England instead of the more probable settlements of former Old Colony Mennonites closer at hand in Latin America.
All those are just simple authorial decisions presumably for the sake of character and plot.
No. The slap on the Old Colony face is that she plastered an evangelical Mennonite worldview onto a people who have spent a century or so fighting off that very mindset.
Evangelical Mennonites have been chastizing and prosletyzing Old Colony Mennonites since they split. And among the finger-waggers have been plenty of former Kleine Gemeinde Mennos — Toews’ own branch of the Mennotree.
And so I had to laugh when I heard Toews say that she’d had backlash from her own people. That Mennonites didn’t want her to air our dirty laundry. As if people of her and my background hadn’t been ragging on the Old Colony for their “backwardness” for decades. The journalist who first wrote about the rapes in Bolivia, in fact, attributed the Old Colonists’ refusal to accept Low German counseling from North Americans to our “centuries of tension,” (tbf, I think it’s only been a little over ninety years of tension).
I expect that all of us would feel a bit more comfortable if the book publicists didn’t try to sell it as a window into the Mennonite world; if we knew that everyone else also knew that this was not a work of realism. Toews didn’t give voice to the voiceless in writing Women Talking and she’s not really “telling these women’s stories” though Russell Smith might claim that in the Globe and Mail. She’s imagining her people, the women she knows from her own childhood Kleine Gemeinde community and what they would do and say – and sing – were they in the place of the women in Bolivia.
And that makes for an interesting and resonant novel.
I don’t know what Women Talking would look like had it been written by an Old Colony (or former Old Colony) Mennonite woman. Maybe there are dusty manuscripts by such women sitting unread on the desks of various agents and publishers. Or maybe not. I have a feeling that such a book wouldn’t resonate quite so well in this #MeToo moment.
But I’d still like to read it.
As far as I can tell, the Mennonite world is ambivalent about Miriam Toews’ cultural appropriation of the Old Colony voice. There are positive reviews but they all have caveats telling us not to expect realism. And, hey, that note to the readers at the front of the book even said as much. This is a work of female imagination. There were no claims of realism.
For all those reasons, I think that most of the Mennonites who read works of literary fiction are leaning towards forgiving Miriam Toews. Or maybe it’s not for those reasons. Maybe we’ll just forgive her out of fear of excommunication and losing our place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Eine Kleine Colony
This is a bit of a specialist cocktail. Late in the novel, a couple of the younger women mention getting drunk on mistletoe vodka. Despite valiant googling efforts, I have not been able to find a vodka distilled from mistletoe. But our narrator was off eating chokecherries at about the same time (this completely baffled me; chokecherries are for cooking into jam or infusing into liqueur not for eating by the handful, their bitter, sour juices running down your chin. They are too sour and have just too many pits) so I have made a chokecherry and vodka cocktail to accompany this post and/or your reading of the novel.
If you haven’t made your own batch of chokecherry liqueur, go ahead and sub in a store-bought cherry liqueur. It won’t be as good but it’s hard to find chokecherries if you don’t know where to look.
- 2 oz vodka
- 1 oz chokecherry liqueur
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
Throw everything in a cocktail shaker with a lot of ice and shake. Serve in a coupe glass with a wedge of lime.
Note on sources:
In addition to items linked in the text, I rely on Frank Epp’s Mennonites in Canada for what I know of the Kleine Gemeinde. Because of our “centuries of tension,” it is difficult to find material on the Old Colony Mennonites that neither judges nor romanticizes them. For an account from someone living within this tension, see the letter reprinted here. It is hard to square the idyllic account of Old Colony life presented in Royden Loewen’s Horse and Buggy Genius with the journalistic accounts. While the tone and even some of the content of his work is clearly a reaction and response to earlier strongly negative accounts, it is also true that his team’s research did uncover evidence of women exercising agency within the patriarchal structures of the Old Colony. I also consulted Lorenzo Cañás Bottos, Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation Making, Religious Conflict and Imagination of the Future. Though he neglects a discussion of gender dynamics, this book, too is useful for understanding the Old Colony Mennonite worldview.