Readers have a fascination with cults and religious fundamentalist movements. Last year Grace McLeen’s The Land of Decoration was a runaway success, a book narrated by 10-year-old Judith, a girl who had re-created a miniature land of milk and honey, a land she believed would come after Armageddon.
Peggy Riley, like Grace McCleen, uses children in her novel to illustrate the horror that fundamentalist ideals can wreak on the most vulnerable.
Zachariah is the centre of Amity and Sorrow’s fundamentalist Mormon family. He is their father, although he has many other children from his fifty wives, their mother, Amaranth, is one of many.
Riley goes back in time to when Amaranth, a young woman who has lost hope, meets Zachariah who promises her the world. The community they live in is a world away from contemporary society. Riley describes the clothes that the women are sown into, the head coverings they must wear and the fresh produce they grow and eat.
The police regularly come to visit the commune. When they come knocking women hide their children and themselves terrified that their children will be taken from them. After years Amaranth begins to feel uncomfortable with her home, swayed in part by another wife, aptly named Hope.
After a fire erupts Amaranth flees with both her children, taking her husband’s car with her. She drives for four days and nights without sleep until she can drive no further after wrapping her car around a tree. Except for a gas station, the place they have arrived at is deserted. They find solitude on a farm with its owner Bradley and Dust, an orphaned Mexican boy Bradley is raising.
The girls and their mother must adjust to their new home in the outside world. Although the farm is secluded they still encounter, for the first time, television, computers and a library. Such is Amity’s delusion that she thinks she is creating the pictures on the television through her healing hands. Neither of the girls can read, their ignorance is complete.
Sorrow believes that the world will soon end. She never loses hope that she will, once more, be reunited with her father. She was her father’s chosen one.
Although Amaranth has finally escaped, it may be too late to undo the damage inflicted on her children. Amity and Sorrow may never recover from the deceit and terribleness of their former life. Their father Zachariah’s delusional reign remained, until their removal, powered by sexual abuse, secrecy and total obedience.
This is a brilliant debut by playwright Peggy Riley. It is an unsettling story of family and faith set to the backdrop of a rugged barren landscape.
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