The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

minnowbly

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
Stephanie Oakes
Dial Books
June 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
William C. Morris Honor

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.

Read alikes

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Walls Around Us
 by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us
Nova Ren Suma
Algonquin Young Readers
March 2015
advance copy received from NetGalley

Two eighteen-year-old girls, Amber, a juvenile prison inmate for several years, and Violet, a ballerina soon headed to New York to pursue her dreams, are connected through Violet’s best friend Ori and the incident that landed her in the same facility as Amber. Alternating narratives from Amber and Violet’s points of view reveal mysterious occurrences on both sides. In the present Violet gets a blood soaked bouquet following her last performance with her ballet studio, reminding her of some past event that landed Ori in juvenile detention where Violet never once visited her. In the past the doors at the Aurora Hills Juvenile Detention Center suddenly open with no correctional officers in sight to prevent the teen girls from escaping and Amber sees a girl who doesn’t belong there. The narratives collide when Violet finally makes a visit to the now abandoned Aurora Hills prison where she, Amber, and Ori all find a kind of supernatural closure around a violent incident one night in a tunnel of trees behind the auditorium during Ori and Violet’s ballet practice. The pacing of the book is slower than many young adult novels, but the mystery of what happened to land Ori in prison and what role Violet played in it will keep you reading. This novel is hard to put into a clear genre – crime fiction, magical realism, contemporary fiction? – and some things are left unclear in the end, which some readers may find frustrating. However I think most will find the open-endedness leaves room for the reader to decide how everything worked out.

Book talkin’: Juvenile Detention

Since my woefully long-ago last post, I have taken on a new job at the Boston Public Library as their Youth Outreach Librarian. While this new position has presented many wonderful opportunities, one of the most interesting – both to me and to all my friends – has been taking books to the juvenile detention facilities around Boston. My first visit was this past Thursday when a teen librarian and I tagged along with my boss, who has been doing these visits for 3 years now, to see how it’s done.

I’ve known about this visit since I started the new job nearly 3 months ago, and it was been a suspenseful wait. My only knowledge of any sort of incarceration has come from episodes of Orange is the New Black, so I pretty much had no idea what to expect. What would the conditions be like? What would the kids think of us? What if they heckled me during a book talk?! In the end the visit – which hit 8 units with 10 books each in 3 locations in 8 hours – was both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. The teens were so amazing and almost heartbreakingly normal, with some sleeping through our presentation and others jumping in to explain a book we brought that they had already read. The environment was more like being in a small, strict high school than a prison. To give credit where it is due, my boss, who has been doing these visits for 3 years now, did 95% of the work since the other two of us were just there to observe. However, I did volunteer to talk about 1 book or so in each unit just to get me warmed up to carrying a bigger load on the next visit.

I went 5 for 6 on books I book talked and the teens actually took, so I’m going to share a few here:

Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters by Gail Giles

Sunny had spent her whole life living in her older sister Jazz’s shadow, so when Jazz runs away to New York to make it as an actress, Sunny is secretly relieved. Then tragedy strikes. Jazz’s apartment building in New York burns down and she is presumed dead. Sunny’s parents don’t cope very well; her father turns to drinking to dull his loss and her mother can barely get out of bed. Then one day a letter arrives from Jazz that she is on her way home. But Jazz is dead. Or is she?

First They Killed My Father by Loung UngImage

In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge, a militant political party, killed one quarter of the population of Cambodia in their 4
years in power. In this memoir, Loung Ung describes her childhood in Cambodia. Her father was a government official, so she and her 7 siblings lead a pretty good and comfortable life by Cambodian standards. However, when the Khmer Rouge took hold of the government, everything changed for her, as for many Cambodians. Considering this book’s title, it’s not giving away too much to tell you that her father was taken and killed. The rest of Loung’s family was taken prisoner; she was separated from them and taken to be trained as a child soldier. If you want to know if Loung ever saw her family again and how she survived, read First They Killed My Father.

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Bobby is a teen living in New York City and he tells his story in chapters alternating between his past with his pregnant girlfriend Nia and his present as a single dad to baby Feather. Life used to be so simple when Bobby had time to run around getting into trouble with his friends and hanging out with Nia at the diner. Now he has to worry about finishing school, traveling across town between his divorced parents’ homes, finding a babysitter, and spending time with Feather. All Bobby really wants is some peace and to be a good father. But one question looms over the entire story – where’s Nia?

ImageThe Buffalo Tree by Adam Rapp

Adam Rapp writes young adult books that are gritty and at times hard to read they are so brutal. In The Buffalo Tree 12-year-old Sura is serving a 6-month sentence in juvie for cribbin’ hoodies – aka stealing hood ornaments, a popular crime in the 90s. Sura’s best friend in juvie is his roommate Coly Jo, a sad sack of a kid serving time for sneaking into people’s houses to watch them sleep. Sura watches and at times tries to defend Coly Jo from the bullying of other inmates, the punishment from the uncaring juvie staff, and Coly Jo’s own criticism. But as he watches things get worse for Coly Jo who sinks deeper into depression, Sura questions whether he’ll be able to escape juvie with his own spirit and sanity in tact, let alone that of his best friend.