Women Talking by Miriam Toews

women talking.jpgWomen talking consists of deep dialogues under the situation of not being perturbed and disturbed by the authority of patriarchy. The book sets its background in a Mennonite colony, in which the author responded to the true-event of a crude crime in the style of a fictitious account. Between 2005 and 2009 girls and women of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia were put into unconscious state at nights and raped by the men of their community. When the women explained the wounds and pain the next day to the elder members and bishop they were deceived that those being marks of punishment from the sins they committed throughout their lives and the women should repent their reckless and devilish acts.

The main plot of the book centers around a group of female of two families holding a secret meeting in the loft dealing with the aftermath of the crime while the men in the city are trying the bail out the perpetrators who are awaiting on trials – not long after the men’s return, the bishop will demand an answer from the women whether they publicly forgive the men, stay in the community and live as normal; otherwise women would have to face excommunication. In the case, women need to decide the future before the men’s imminent return from the city.

The meeting is recorded by August Epp, a Mennonite who was excommunicated along with his parents during childhood. He was educated in England but incarcerated in jail for what he had done during the street protest against a bill passed in the British Parliament. After the imprisonment he is convinced to return to the community and being reintroduced under the Bishop’s watch. The Mennonite women are all victims of the Incident, in front of them are three different options, (1) Do Nothing; (2) Fight or (3) Leave. Three options were each debated in the meeting conducted through the mother dialect of Plautdietsch (Low German) and translated in English on package paper by August Epp.

“Ona asks the children if they know what a sea is, and they stare at her with four enormous blue eyes, sea-like. Ona describes the sea as another world, one that is hidden from us, one that lives underwater. It is the life in the sea that she defines as the sea, and not the sea itself. She talks about fish and other living things.”

Although the context of Women Talking is based on the aftermath of a tragic and depraved incident in a community, there are some interesting conversations arising from the book. At first I am not sure if I have absorbed wholeheartedly of the meaning of the words, but somehow I gradually grasp some ideas of the dialogues. They are somewhat philosophical and thought-provoking.

At one point of conversation, the women are contending whether they should be fighting or leaving to confront the cruelty of the men, and if there are any precedents to support the argument. Women responds that animals, like horses, would evade but some would fight in return – most examples are surrounded with animals’ behaviour in the farm as these are the creatures women often see in the homeland life. Following the discussion, one woman would rebuke – if we are compared to animals like pigs, horses, dogs or raccoons, we would not enter the gate of heaven as there are not much labouring and feeding going on in the eternity.

There is also another argument regarding the option of “Leaving”, what is the appropriate age range for the boys to leave with women? Would there be possible harm unforeseen in future if boys/men who were willing to follow the women? Would all this be a pretence of the men if they follow the women under the consent set between both sexes and a lie for the women taking charge of decision in the new land? How are we assessing the best option knowing that we actually are using our intellect and peace in mind rather than driven by hunger and fear like other animals do? Varied situations and hypotheses are being discerned and discussed between women talking in the meeting, they are endless, and some unanswerable; counted clocks being a dumb catalyst to propel and urge the women back to ponder the three options again practically.

As the meeting progresses, some beautiful notions come up in the book. It is actually showing that although the women in the community might also be the sticklers of belief to other members that “outsiders”, like readers, might disapprove, but the option they finally choose is reflecting an uncultivated and unwrought notion of “love” and “faith” in humanity that is without any intervention of a third-party’s influence, and is inbred in every life. The option and the reasons for it is in a nature no way regarded by outsiders as an act of resignation, and entirely not expounding the idea of forgiveness vulgarly –  the women would not “Do Nothing” under this situation, and they would not “Fight” as both acts are flouting pacifism. They are conscientious objectors, and they need to reflect pacifism through “Leaving” – to protect the children and the weak, to be acknowledged, and to think. – Consciousness is resistance, that faith is action. (p. 214)

Another beautiful idea is the relationship between August Epp and Ona. August Epp was excommunicated during boyhood, his mother passed away while he was incarcerated in prison and father disappeared during the time in England when he was a boy. Ona, on the other hand, was impregnated by the violent incident. Both are victims of the “Mennonite experiment”. But it is the tragic past which tied August Epp with the Bishop that makes the relationship with Ona more intimate. August Epp is suicidal because he is secretly known of his indelible past that he feels guilty being born. But in Ona’s eyes and perspective, Epp is the message of goodness and hope to both the community as well as her future in a physical form.

In Epp’s conversation he has had with Ona, faith can always be restored. The rudiment of love is that it is a subject of supreme and unknown nature that God has taught individuals to reflect in lives rather than instilling strict rules for individuals to obey in solidarity to prove that you Love God. Also, the concept of “action” is important in the book, one should change other than being indulged with the past.

I think this book is not mainly written to us readers to judge whether being kept from and secluded from the patriarchal world under a religious belief, like Anabaptism, is a harmful notion to women / believers, but the focal point is that through the world of the women on this account, we should grip the idea of how to treat ourselves in our world, learn to deal, confront, and accept the past, of how to be resilient and  convert ourselves into good use.

The Carousel Painter by Judith McCoy Miller

9780764202797In the chapter called “Amish in Print” in a non-fiction titled The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill states that an Amish romance fiction, aims at Evangelical Christian women, not only provides them with a focus on their personal religious faith reflected by the main characters in the novel, but also brings them  “a safe haven free  from the wanton sexual encounters of many mainstream romance novels and a reinforcement of the cultural values of sexual fidelity and chastity they cherish”. Those novels are romance-laden but spiritual and wholesome for the readers and are confined and teeming with no more than the indulgence of eye-contact magnetism of the pairs. On The Carousel Painter, although it is not an Amish fiction, it certainly matches the criteria of the statement mentioned above.

The story sets in the 19th century Ohio. A 21-year-old girl named Carrington Brouwer finished study in France, returned to the US and sought a place of abode with her friend’s family Galloway. Since her friend Augusta’s father, Mr. Galloway, owned a carousel factory in Collinsford, Carrie decided to take the liberty of requesting a position of a carousel painter in order to earn living and escape the condescending behaviour from Mrs. Galloway by living in a boardinghouse near the workplace. However in the 19th century, women were rarely seen working in the carousel factory where manual labour is heavily applied, it therefore depended upon how Carries defied the being looked-down-upon attitude from male-dominant workers and their wives and convinced the inherent belief of the factory manager Josef Kaestner in proving herself a competent and reliable entity in the factory rather than an artist.

Apart from the working environment, Carrie also had to deal with a series of unfortunate concatenation surrounding her life in Collinsford; she had to get rid of the Detective’s surmise to validate herself not the culprit in the case of the theft of necklace at Galloway’s place, and to retrieve of her father’s painting later on. Of course, these consecutive omens would inevitably resort herself to appreciate the reading of The Bible with assurance of her faith in God and all that, as well as to seek God for help to fight against her pride and other human deficits.

As a historical fiction, it presents me an interesting knowledge of how carousel horses were made in factory at the time; for example, the legs and tails were carved by journeymen and the body was made with assembly of lumbers which glued tightly together by apprentices; a hole was drilled in the center ensuring the pole was securely placed. The carving of body and the head was carried out by the masters and wood-dowelled together with other parts of the body. At the final process, sanding and primer were applied before doing the fancy painting of the horse. However the only part missing for me is that it does not say much detail of the mass immigration of Germans to Pennsylvania in the 18th to 19th century which I am really interested in learning, and that the fiction obviously emphasizes the sparkle of romance between the main characters and the spiritual conversation with God.

Overall, it is a light read and it really transform me from world of “hyper-modernity” into a setting which is so pure and simple. It is a joyful read, and adds the flavour in reading as a first person narration.  But I think I might not read this kind of novel in the nearer future, as it tends towards the young teens, so I am probably too old for that. Totally I have read two Christian novels; next I may get myself Thrills of the Caste by Valerie Weaver-Zercher and start the read!

One of my favourite collections
One of my favourite collections


On Amish

I came into contact with a term called “Amish” when I read a headline news on Amish School shooting that occurred in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 2006 on the newspaper. Since then I have been captivated by this community and the faith that underpins it. It is a fascinating case study on humanities – I’ve been so absorbed reading The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill. I hope someday soon I could gain more-in-depth knowledge and have my own observations on it.

I am now reading up to Chapter 12 of the book about adolescence and Rumspringa, in which I had learned that almost 85% of the Amish youth would return to the community and be baptised. It is phenomenal to see how the Amish still has the resoluteness and determination to keep the population expanding and withstanding strong in the midst of modernity.

There are aspects of humanities I can explore and study about the Amish, for example, the religion and family histories – from the development of the religious reform of Martin Luther, the gradual emerging of another religious form of Anabaptism (Mennonites), the founding of the Amish religion by Jakob Ammann in the 17th century, and finally to the immigration of the Amish and their ancestors from Europe to the North America. Not without mentioning, Amish ways of living is actually reflecting their religious faith, their traditions, and the pride related to the the ancestral history (observed in the Ordnung and Gelassenheit). The part on the nomination and selection of the bishop is interesting, as it is not all brought forward by humans’ decisions but kind of including some part of God’s will too!

Amish ways also concern sociolinguistic aspect that originate from their ancestors as a result of the mass immigration during the 18th century, and there is a dialect is called Pennsylvania Dutch. The communities including the Amish still preciously value it as a form of intimate communication among church members.

I am also amazed to have found so many antonym in this book. Not just old and new, plain and fancy, but also low and high and slow to fast. I like learning new technical terms and vocabularies describing the Amish communities. I will keep on reading this book.


When the heart criesThis is another book I harvested from the Ship. Before reading this book, I had already found out loads of information and facts about the Amish culture, though not very deep of getting into the history, for instance, I had read a novel called Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult, watched some TV programmes about the Amish (Meeting the Amish from Channel 4, Amish: A Secret Life, and Leaving the Amish Paradise, both from the BBC, etc.), so I had already have some vague knowledge of that beforehand. I always like the culture, the traditional costumes, their genuineness, way of values and beliefs.

To me, reading this book is like riding on a roller-coaster as an exaggeration, because I always thought judging from most Amish fiction covers, especially the romantic ones, they would be light reads on bed and stuff. Unexpectedly although it is a story about love, courage and faith, the heroine has been going through a series of unfortunate events. More than that, I can not believe that some evil thoughts and wrongdoings would exist among some Amish characters in this book, because I think most Amish fictions are some sort of promotion of positiveness and purity. In this case, I found this book really appealing and hard to be put down. I also like the code mixing and switching of dialogues between English and Pennsylvania Dutch, and the consideration of compiling each foreign word that is being described and said in the book at the back pages. Disappointing to me the story doesn’t finish in the first book and obviously it is a trilogy which means that I have to read the second and the third one and see how it all ends.

This book gives me a new insight about Amish fiction and I hope to explore more works by Cindy Woodsmall in future. Apart from that, I also have a book called The Amish by Donald Kraybill with me and I am so very excited to read it very soon!