In the pages of A Woman Is No Man, Isra, as well her mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, experience violence at the hands of men, as do all eight of Toews’ scheming women in the hayloft of Women Talking.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these are books about victimization. Isra’s desire for someone, particularly a man, to love her is the driving force for much of the book, and the women in Molotschna fight amongst themselves before they can arrive at a conclusion. In their choices, their dialogue, you can find denial, fervent hope, capitulation, and despair, but these all exist on the way to revolution, both physically and intellectually.
As a reader of these intense novels, it is, at many points, hard to hang in there without feeling hopeless. These women are trapped, that’s irrefutable. So in order to escape, they have to reframe their realities, allowing themselves to look at their worlds differently—maybe understanding that they can interpret scripture for themselves, or realizing literally everything they have come to believe is false. There is halting, there is forward and backward movement, there is fear and danger everywhere, and there is the very real fact that in saving themselves and their daughters, they must leave behind people they love, and a culture and religion that, for better or much worse, has held them as long as they have been alive.
When I told you earlier not to mire too much in the connection between these novels and the nightmare that is right now, I left something out. While “hope” can seem like a weightless, non-specific thing these days, let the revolutions of these characters buoy you. There is redemption for these women, of their own making, and both Rum and Toews escort us through their process of arriving at it in multiple, unexpected forms.