This is the story of Jacob, raised in a cult in rural Montana since age five. He’s about to turn 18 and faces a life of dutiful faith, with a wife chosen for him. His straightforward path is shaken up by two outsiders his age: one is another young man who has arrived as a new recruit against his will, and the other is a young woman who lives on a ranch that shares a border with Nodd, the home of Jacob’s people. Though their community is small, they do not think of themselves imprisoned on a parcel of land. Instead, the fence that Jacob surveys on his rounds is “a strip of armor, a strand of chain mail that made us stronger, a shield to protect us.”
Pete Hautman effectively blends a few of his past ideas into a unique study of an isolated community. He takes the religious questioning from Godless and the honest budding love fromThe Big Crunch to concoct a slower, more deliberate story that blurs the line between YA and regular adult fiction. Jacob’s story is superficially about teenagers, but has a rounded cast of adults who are just as integral as the few young people. The book has a serious tone because Jacob is a rather serious person, and it has a slow pace because life for the protagonist has been relatively simple up until this point. Each bit of new information is cause for reflection.
“There is a thing I do that frightens me, but I cannot resist.” This is an opening sentence of a chapter from inside Jacob’s head, and a lot of the novel is about his internal struggles with purity and righteousness, both sexual and mental. Those in Hautman’s audience who were raised in some version of Abrahamic religion can probably connect with the concept of the weight of sin, which haunts Jacob continually. At one point Jacob justifies his actions by realizing that he is too far gone, and therefore may as well “sin avidly, hungrily, ardently.” It’s the same realization that Huck Finn has on the river, because he is also trapped between faulty teachings and the whispers of his own conscience.
Readers are asked to put themselves into the shoes of these isolated people, who were not portrayed as particularly violent or crazy, just alone. When outsiders come knocking, it makes sense that the devotees would think they are here “to undo us with their lies and their hatred.” Even if the lies and hatred are imagined, the influence of the outside world probably would indeed “undo” them. Their mindset is one of a small tribe in a former time, and there is no reconciling their efforts with modernity. Jacob slowly comes to realize that he will be forced to painfully confront the frightening outside world, or forced to painfully embrace the coming endtimes and pray all the harder. It’s not an enviable choice.
There are more exciting books out there, but this one is far from boring. In fact, the cadence of the language cast a sort of comforting spell over me, and I rather looked forward to reading on because of the careful unfolding of Jacob’s transition into adulthood. It’s dramatic without being flashy, and suggests a realism that few books about religion can probably reach.