April 27, 2009
Two new young adult novels deal with teenage girls in polygamist cults. This is right from the headlines stuff, of course. The authors take very different approaches, in ways that are of interest to CSA survivors and anyone who has been exploited by organized groups.
The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams (May, 2008) is receiving a big roll out from St. Martin’s Press. Thirteen-year-old Kyra, is very much a free thinker, despite living and being raised in an isolated religious community in the desert. She finds ways to slip away for a few hours at a time, gets access to secular literature through a book mobile, and even has a crush on and begins to make out with one of the cult’s teenage boys. But the Prophet declares she must marry her own 60 year old uncle. Kyra’s revulsion and her defiance get her sweetheart beaten up and run off the ranch–and she is nearly killed herself. Kyra escapes in the blood spattered book mobile–the scene of a real murder. With its car chases and guns and hair breath rescue, the book has a made-for-movies feel to it.
Sister Wife, by Shelley Hrdlitschika (Orca, October 2008) is a much more internal story. Readers go inside the experiences of Celeste, her younger sister, and a secular girl who is taken into the cult. Like Kyra, Celeste is chosen for plural marriage to a much older man, one of the kinder Elders. But Celeste is unhappy with the submissive life expected of her and wonders what it might be like to live in the dangerous secular world. Rather than polarizing her characters into simple good and evil, the author shows the many shades that exist in all of us. The pull of the cult–its well ordered life, the supportive network of farm families–is depicted, as well as the numbing effects of life under the arbitrary control of the Elders. The depiction of the lives of powerless women is especially poignant as Celeste’s mother struggles with too many children and complex relationships with sister wives, and nearly dies because her husband refuses “outside” medicine for a complicated pregnancy. Celeste could walk away at any time, as the “extra” boys do. But bonds of love and belief hold her close. As an emerging individual, she struggles, clearly wanting to spread her wings, but fearing the great cost of losing family and friends. Readers will root for her, and understand her struggle. This is a tough, realistic and satisfying coming of age novel.
As when sexual abuse came out of the closet, I think many people are both attracted and repelled–fascinated, really–by the phenomena of child brides in polygamist cults. The easy take is to imagine one’s self fighting back and defeating all the bad guys. Harder, but ultimately more rewarding, is to understand the complexities–the confusion of affection and damage, learned passivity vs. desire for autonomy–that survivors must struggle with in achieving their own hard won freedom.