I knew this would be a tough read. I knew it would make me uncomfortable, but I was counting on an overall positive gripping experience, and I'm not sure that's what I came away with.
Agnes and Honey have always been best friends, but they haven't always been so different. Agnes loves being a Believer. She knows the rules at the Mount Blessing religious commune are there to make her a better person.
Honey hates Mount Blessing and the control Emmanuel, their leader, has over her life. The only bright spot is the butterfly garden she's helping to build, and the journal of butterflies that she keeps.
When Agnes's grandmother makes an unexpected visit to the commune, she discovers a violent secret that the Believers are desperate to keep quiet. And when Agnes's little brother is seriously injured and Emmanuel refuses to send him to a hospital, Nana Pete takes the three children and escapes the commune.
The fact that the author drew on personal experience to write this novel is immense. It really adds a new dimension to the story. I told my mom I was reading a book by a woman who'd grown up in a religious commune, and she said, "Oh, you mean a cult?" Well, yeah. One freaky-fried cult.
My biggest problem with this novel is the way it tangles the already tangled web of religion. Tolerance is modern society's buzzword, so of course your average student knows about religious freaks. They understand that people do strange things for their beliefs. But reading a novel takes you down below head knowledge to the sticky realm of emotions and gut reactions.
A religious leader, calling himself Emmanuel, beats disobedient children. He calls it "retraining." Instant reflex: No! That's wrong! Agreed. But it's followed up with this line: "It's abuse, Agnes. There's no other way around it. And there is no such thing as retraining people, okay, darlin'? People are free to make up their own minds, not to be trained to think and act like seals."
Under the circumstances, how can anyone say they disagree with that argument? Readers have a bloody picture in their head, and a Christian who comes along with, "Well, technically, there is such a thing as retraining--but not like that!" will not be well received.
Each time I thought the author was moving in a more positive direction, about to show that the Believers were the exception to the rule, and there really is a true way out there, she got all fuzzy on me. "Love is the answer," the preacher continues. "If we love one another, then we need not fear anything else. Love--" he raised the Bible in the air-- "is everything."
Honey asks Agnes: "Have you ever tried to trust yourself to do the right thing? Instead of always waiting for some sign or trying to figure out what Emmanuel thinks is right for you?"
In the context of the story, your reaction is, "Yes! Stop relying on Emmanuel. Trust yourself!" But if modern psychology has shown us anything, it's shown us that we're the last beings in the universe we want to trust. Man is downright unreliable. Yet we're supposed to follow our hearts? Believe that if we love one another, everything will turn out all right?
That's the worst kind of fairy tale you can feed a child.