Okay, this is the third novel about a young teen girl who escapes from forced marriage in a polygamist cult that has cross my desk in the space of a year. Keep Sweet, by Michele Dominguez Greene, is a good read. Like the other two I’ve reviewed here, this book has its virtues, but laid side by side all three beg the question “Why are we so fascinated by this one story line?”
In Keep Sweet, 14-year-old Alva Jane is an obedient daughter of the third—and favored—wife of her father. (He has a total of seven wives and 29 children.) Alva Jane has never questioned life in the FLDS compound or the authority of the older men who rule it. Although her life is physically hard (she and her mother bake bread every morning for the whole household) she is privileged by her father’s position, privileged enough to dream of being a first wife herself to the handsome and kind John Joseph, her 17-year-old math tutor.
But jealousy runs high in the huge family. Her father’s spurned first wife is out for revenge on Alva Jane’s mother. When Sister Cora discovers Alva Jane and John Joseph in a stolen kiss, all hell breaks loose. Alva Jane is beaten and imprisoned, John Joseph is run off the plantation. Then Alma Jane is married to a particularly violent man three times her age, a man who beats and humiliates his wives into obedience.
Despite the rapes, despite the poverty of opportunity, despite the culture of submission, hope stays alive in Alva Jane. With the help of another unhappy sister wife she prepares to make a run for it.
Clearly the audience for this book is not young girls stuck in polygamist cults. They will never be allowed to read it with its message of hope and its clues to successful escape.
Why does the story matter to the rest of us? There is a creepy fascination with polygamy right now. Just have a look at the “just folks” photo on the cover of the February National Geographic. It isn’t just the snow on the ground that gives you a chill.
Each of the novels centers on a girl who is just coming of age for critical thought. Right at the time she could begin to think and act for herself, she is married off to a controlling man. Each girl comes, eventually, to think for herself enough to attempt escape.
Are we asking, “What would I do if I were one of those girls in prairie dresses? Surely I’d get out of there. How?”
Could it be that the polygamist compound is a metaphor for societal expectations? Do the abusive marriages stand in for garden variety abusive homes?
One thing that haunts me is how unprepared any of the children—Lost Boys or escaped girls—are for life beyond the compound. A real girl, if she could cut herself loose from family and siblings, her culture, religion and home, would be a sitting duck for exploitation. What is waiting for her in the outside world?