Because I believe that every young reader should see themselves reflected in fiction, I am always on the lookout for books which depict the varied shades of growing up religious to put in my "faith in fiction" file. Though the author does not claim it directly, this novel closely reflects the experience of life in the conservative fundamentalist movement called Quiverful, which celebrates large families and a strict, patriarchal interpretation of the Bible. Understanding the church explored in this novel necessarily includes an understanding of "fundamental," as a ideological construct, and what it means to be a community which adheres solely to an ancient text while negotiating the modern world. Though this book is conflicting and strongly emotional, it is heartfelt and powerful and true. One of its strengths is that, in spite of everything, every misunderstanding or narrow interpretation of the Bible, that faith can still be a positive, courage-giving, steadying, light-in-the-dark kind of thing. That's a tough takeaway message when writing about conservative fundamentalism.
Summary: Rachel is modest, earnest, and faithful, a true daughter and faithful member of Calvary Christian Church of Clayton. Her upbringing is strict, her movements and activities are constrained, and her future is already mapped out - pure maiden, faithful wife, devoted mother, full woman of God. Rachel knows that she and her nine siblings are different from other children who belong to the "government" and attend public schools with other Christ-haters; she and her brothers and sisters live better than all of those people, because she belongs to God, and is taught Christian principles at home, because her parents love them enough to keep them free of the world's taint.
It's a hard path that their family has chosen, and not everyone can stay true to this path; sometimes, temptations beckon, and then Pastor Garrett must send unbelievers on a Journey of Faith, so that they can, through hard work and studying Scripture regain their walk. It's a terrible shame to bear, however - and nothing Rachel wants to happen to her...
While Rachel is positive about her faith, and sure she loves her family, what's she's less sure about is her role in the church community. When people come back from the Journey, they're changed, all right - but maybe not in a way that speaks to Rachel of faith, at all. And, though her sister, Faith, never seems to have selfish moments, waver, or doubt - and is happy with her husband and her new baby, and with not knowing what the largest mammal in the sea is... that's not Rachel. Sometimes, Rachel even struggles to pray. When losses shake her family, and she's pushed unexpectedly into greater responsibility, Rachel almost breaks under the load. This is not the world she wants - the endless round of caring for children, cooking, cleaning, wearing her hair long and loose, her clothes plain and severely modest, so as not to further burden the men with her temptations; the always answering with scripture quotes, thinking in Bible verses, wearing the weight of her father's blessing on her head... never having a chance to read, to wander aimlessly, to catch a breath and embrace her curiosity. But, a submissive woman submits to her husband as to God - and Rachel isn't learning either one of those very well, if this is what God wants. And, she's terrified that she never will learn.
There's aren't many choices in Rachel's world... but the rumor mill reminds Rachel that once a girl named Lauren left their community, and survived the elders, the prayers, and all the condemnation with a thousand-yard stare. Now, Lauren's back... and Rachel desperately longs to know if Lauren's choices were worth it, and if there are other choice out there for a girl like her.
Peaks: Because I was raised in a conservative faith, it's easy for me to identify books about faith that mush together a lot of religions, a lot of dogmas, and a lot of ideologies - in short, they can be critical of something obviously not understood. This book leaves little doubt that the author both did her research and has experience from which to draw, which makes its emotional punch genuine.
I found that though the accurately portrayed (and deeply negative) depictions of fundamental Christianity are a lot of what the plot spends time with, Biblical faith - balanced and open and giving and sound - isn't trashed along with cultish, patriarchal, fundamentalist faiths, which I deeply appreciated. In light of fundamentalism, many don't understand how any faith can be good, but that isn't the case here. I further appreciate that Mathieu doesn't treat Rachel's faith or her church as a sideshow for readers to gawk at and poke fun over - this is not a reality show about a woman with ten kids - but treats Rachel's church as a fact of her life which becomes less and less easy to bear, as she seeks her own mental and spiritual identity.
A little Reader Beware: this book IS emotional and may be triggering for people who had to set aside a lot of panic and guilt and pain to live as they believe, and not as they were raised, so if that's you, read with the tissues near to hand, and maybe a friend or a pint of sorbet with which to decompress.
Valleys: My only concern in this novel is for how homeschooling is portrayed. Many - too many - people believe that teens who are in home schools for faith reasons are schooled as this character was - being taught all a parent knows, not relying on computers or libraries or in any connection with the school system or the state, and deciding that's sufficient. That is NOT how most homeschooling goes, and I think it's important to differentiate and remind readers that most people who are homeschooled aren't ignorant or weird - more often than not, they're learners well ahead of public school students because they've had the opportunity for 1:1 learning, or at the very least, a much smaller classroom size. Much like the idea that people who telecommute and work at home never stop working, students in mainstream, curiosity-centric and tech-augmented homeschools really never stop learning.
Conclusion: Becoming your own person is something many people - religious or otherwise - never truly learn, nor is this huge concept often explored in young adult literature to the extent to which it is in this book. A quiet novel, it nonetheless has a powerful lot to say about identity, faith, hope, and knowing your own heart and mind better than anyone on earth. It is my sincere hope that this novel finds many readers who take its truth to heart: you can still be you and not believe what your family believes, and still love and be loved unstintingly by God.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Roaring Brook. After June 2, you can find DEVOTED by Jennifer Mathieu at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!