Published by Dial/Penguin on June 9th 2015
Pages: 400 •Goodreads
With a harrowing poetic voice, this contemporary page-turner is perfect for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, Julie Berry's All The Truth That's in Me, and the works of Ellen Hopkins.
The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust.
And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too.
Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it's clear that Minnow knows something—but she's not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a hard-hitting and hopeful story about the dangers of blind faith—and the power of having faith in oneself.
“Belief shouldn’t be compatible with lies, but is.”
Every so often there are books you come across that are unpleasant, that fill your stomach with a sense of dread at the knowledge of the subject matter, but that you soldier through reading anyways because they are so damn important. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes is one of those books. From just the synopsis, it’s clear that the novel is going to deal with not one, but several unsavory topics: a cult, a botched amputation, and the juvenile detention system. However, despite dealing with so many intense topics, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly provides more than just an entertaining story. It handles those tough topics with an insightful nod to the happenings and phenomena that mirror it in our own contemporary world.
The beginning of the novel passed much more quickly than I initially anticipated. We get a very brief look into Minnow’s arrest and court case and then she is put into juvenile detention, which is where a bulk of the story is told from. Through flashbacks, conversations with her fellow inmates, and her own internal musings, the story is shaped.
Religion and The Community
The most prominent theme in the story is obviously that of religion. When Minnow is five, her parents leave modern society to live in the woods with a cult called “The Kevinians” (big surprise, their leader’s name is Kevin). Kevin claims that he can speak to God and that God is a human named Charlie that is born every few centuries into the human world. While it sounds absurd, it’s scarily realistic in how it shows how this false prophet gained followers (mostly those living in impoverished communities, working back-breaking factory labor jobs) and how they gave up their lives (and the lives of their children) in society to follow this sole man into the wilderness. Minnow has few memories of life before The Community, but always found herself asking the uncomfortable questions that led to punishment in the cult. Yet despite Minnow’s reluctance to adhere to the group think, she reflects rather profoundly on how people allow themselves to be convinced of such distorted realities:
“A human God. How preferable to an invisible God, I thought, one you’re not even sure exists. I was never taught basic math, but by the time I figured out how to finger count, I deduced that Charlie was around my age.”
Minnow’s life in juvenile detention after the destruction of The Community has her pointing out the fact that religion, despite it’s spiritual nature, can often seem more human than scientific explanations for things such as creation, which she learns from her cellmate Angel. The stark juxtaposition of her intensely “religious” background against the scientific phenomena she learns about in prison is done well, and seeing Minnow puzzle out the what is most plausible in her mind is insightful and fascinating. Minnow is aware of the fact that the Prophet fed off of fear and manipulated using charisma to create a cult that bred abuse disguised as “righteousness,” and seeing the progression of this happen through Minnow’s memories was so frightening but so important, since it’s happened again and again over the course of history.
Another huge element of this novel is how sexism comes into play, both within the religious cult and within the real world. Minnow does not know how to read or write because in the community, it is forbidden for women to know such things. Arranged marriages between teenage girls and grown men is common and often. The loss of Minnow’s hands due to disobedience in the cult really signify the controlling nature in which women are treated, as she will literally have to be submissive to others for her survival. These instances of subtle and not-so-subtle brainwashing work, as seen in Minnow’s sister, who was born in The Community and fully embraces the Kevinian “faith” despite being exposed to its horrors.
Incarceration and Juvenile Detention
The second, and arguably just as important, setting in this novel is juvenile detention. I don’t know the extent of the research that Stephanie Oakes did into the juvenile detention system in America, but she managed to perfectly portray a system that is both horribly broken yet an unlikely haven for some. For Minnow, prison allows her so many things that had been denied to her for the past twelve years: proper nutrition, education, the exposure to outside thoughts and ideas, the choice of whether to practice religion. Through Minnow’s eyes readers are able to develop a strange relief and fondness for juvenile detention when the the narrative returns from Minnow’s flashbacks, because the conditions of the cult’s Community were so abhorrent.
The depiction of juvenile detention also brings to light the questionable circumstances in which the inmates have ended up there. Some committed heinous acts out of desperation, some out of passion, and some out of fear. Most, if not all, of the inmates that Minnow encounters carry scars of some sort of abuse:
“Here, the scars usually shielded beneath yards of orange cotton are on display, the whip marks scoring my back from countless childhood punishments, the thick bands of red scar tissue cuffing both ankles. But, when I cast my eyes to other bodies, I see skin tarnished with small holes of cigarette burns and pink puckered knife wounds and white lines like hash marks on forearms. Here, my scars are the only part of me that could be called normal. It seems like every girl here has had their own personal prophet.”
Like Minnow, so many of the inmates landed in circumstances that led to imprisonment due to cycles of abuse and situations of desperation. While the narrative does not excuse the inmates behavior (nor does it try to make you empathize with all of them, as some are truly bad people), it does give weight to the fact that circumstance and upbringing can shape an individual dramatically, and violence, aggression, fear, and desperation are often closer and more similar than we’d like to think.
While I am extremely impressed by Oakes ability to write a debut novel that covers so many important topics without feeling heavy handed, there were a few elements keeping it from being a five star read for me, particularly the narrative voice of Minnow. Told in a first person POV, at times Minnow would seem naive and scared and stubborn, the way I expected her to be after what the trauma she’s endured, and at other times she’d be randomly insightful and wise and not sounding like someone who was sequestered in a cult for twelve years. Despite the narrative voice inconsistencies, Minnow was still a compelling narrator who’s voice finds a special strength in describing the horrors that she encountered View Spoiler »Reading about how she lost her hands was a particularly hard part for me to get through, as you KNOW it’s coming the whole book, and it’s finally revealed in such GRAPHIC detail. « Hide Spoiler
Overall: Was this book hard to read? Yes. Were there instances that enraged me, horrified me, disgusted me? Absolutely. Yet I would definitely recommend this book again and again because it shows the depth of humanity in so many ways, from cruelty to resilience, and it shows how it’s possible for such inconceivable beliefs to held, no matter how absurd we think they may be. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly showcases humans at their worst, but also at their most quietly hopeful, a feat that is hard to achieve in a single novel.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Goodreads Challenge 2016