Seventeen-year-old Minnow Bly is about as much an outsider as a teenage girl can be. A former member of a cult that lived isolated in the woods for more than a decade, she has no hands (they were cut off at the wrist while in the cult), no education, and is now in a juvenile detention center awaiting parole. What happened to this girl to land her in prison with no hands and great uncertainty about her future? In chapters that alternate between her present in the detention center and her past in the cult’s homestead, Minnow tells her story to Dr. Wilson, a counselor and government investigator who is trying to solve the mystery of the demise of the Kevinian cult and the death of its leader and self-proclaimed Prophet – you guessed it – Kevin. In exchange for information, Dr. Wilson offers to vouch for her at the parole hearing that could either free her or land her in adult prison for a long time. Questions about Minnow abound – what did she do to end up in detention? How did she escape the cult? What happened to her hands? How can she even function in the world when she hasn’t been a part of society since she was five years old? The answers come slowly and mount in suspense until the climactic, violent end of the past that led to her present situation. Minnow is introspective and comes across a little too mature considering she’s been living off the grid with a bunch of religious zealots for most of her life. Ironically she has opportunities and experiences in juvenile detention that she never had before – everything from making a best girlfriend to learning to read – prompting Minnow and the reader to think about the meaning of freedom and whether imprisonment is only about your physical surroundings. The ending is wide, WIDE open, so if you like your endings wrapped up tight, you might find the ending unsatisfying or infuriating.
I really enjoyed this book. I was addicted from the start. I’m fascinated and horrified, as I think a lot of people are, by cults, and Stephanie Oakes builds some mythology around the Kevinians that really makes them come alive. The book is set in Montana and captures the sort of folksy religiosity of the American West (people in their scripture have names like Chad, for example). I also saw some parallels with the Fundamental Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an unofficial and broadly condemned relative of the Mormon/LDS church – polygamy, child brides, old-fashioned dress, isolation, a Prophet who doesn’t practice what he preaches. To learn more and probably head down an Internet wormhole, google Warren Jeffs; Colorado City, Arizona; or FLDS.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly received a William C. Morris Honor for a book of distinction written by a first-time published author. As I read, I had to ask myself why it didn’t win the award, which went to Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda. I came up with a few reasons. First, there were a few times I really had to suspend belief in order to keep on reading, especially in the detention center. As part of my library outreach job, I go to juvenile detention centers once a month and some of the stuff in this book would never happen there. Ever. Maybe things are different in Montana? I don’t know, but the book lost some credibility there for me. Second, Oakes brought up some big issues, mostly in the detention center, that either didn’t get fully fleshed out or were solved way too easily – things like prison rape and intimidation, solitary confinement (which Obama recently outlawed for juveniles in federal prison), and being manipulated by other inmates, particularly in Minnow’s case. And third, again, Minnow just reads as way too savvy for a person who has been isolated and fed lies for most of her life. I don’t care how rebellious she was in the cult; it doesn’t convince me that she can handle herself that well in juvenile detention.