I love books about cults and/or survivalists. I think I secretly want that post-apocalypse grow-your-own veg and build your own house self-sufficiency lifestyle, only without the murderous religious extremism.. After reading the excellent After the Fire earlier this Autumn, I decided to try The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. Also excellent.
The story begins with a girl kicking a boy half to death and being cuffed and loaded into a police vehicle. Only the officers struggle to cuff her because she has no hands- her arms end in sore, angry stumps. So how did this mutilated girl get to be under this bridge on the outskirts of Missoula, in the snow, kicking a boy to mush? The format of the story is quite similar to the aforementioned After The Fire. Minnow, sentenced to imprisonment in Juvie, recounts to an FBI doctor the story of her decade in the Community, a secluded, polygamous collection of ‘saved’ people, living in the woods under the sketchy doctrine and rabid regulation of the Prophet. These Prophets. It seems that their gods always want them to have absolute authority and to sleep with young girls. Funny that. Anyway, Minnow escaped the cult, somebody burned it to ashes, and there’s a chance Minnow might know what happened, but she isn’t talking.
My favourite thing about this book was Minnow’s relationship with her convicted murdered cellmate Angel, a cornrowed, cynical lifer and long-term resident of ’the system’. As unlikely a friendship as you will ever read, Minnow brings out the softness in her- Angel helps Minnow learn to read and swear properly, to navigate the cliques and gangs of the detention centre, and encourages her to hold on to her hope, having never really grasped her own. In Juvie, Minnow sheds her naivety and becomes this strong, impressive young woman full of excitement at all these new ideas and things to learn. Though she has always been low key rebellious and resistant to the Prophet’s dogma, this scared, betrayed girl is galvanised by exposure to a tiny slice of the real world into this woman who refuses to be a victim and learns to think for herself. She was so resilient and admirable, still wanted things and had hopes and plans and drive.
I really liked how much emphasis the book put on the complexity of families, how a certain amount of love and loyalty can still exist despite violence, regret, loss of agency and harm. It focuses too on consequences of actions and the failings and labyrinths of the criminal justice system, the moral minefields are the differences between murder and self-defence and the impact of physical and psychological torture on a person’s behaviour. It asks is murder ever justified? What about in self-defence? What if a murder prevents a horrible crime?
I must also add that I absolutely adored the writing- it was beautiful. The prose was full of Minnow’s pain and longing and the intelligence that she had never been allowed to cultivate. I loved the sections on the stars, how she kept returning to the stars as her anchor point in the world. First they were a divine certainty, then a celestial mystery and it was through learning about anything and everything that she came to realise that not having answers is okay. I was completely swept away in Oakes’s prose and constantly found myself rereading lines and paragraphs that were particularly stuffed with beautiful images or almost tangible thoughts. I loved the scene in the pear orchard where Minnow sees her only friend from the outside world- there’s something not quite right about him and afterwards, having read the scene in which she saw him last, I’m pretty sure I was right about what that scene was supposed to be- I don’t want to give too much away, but it was composed and reflected on very well within the story. The reader is forced to do a bit of a reappraisal of that scene which I thought was an unusual move and worked well.