Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Manny and his sister, Elena, are foster kids who got brought into a religious cult, led by the charismatic Deacon Thompson. Deacon preaches about Reconciliation as the only true way to bond with God, and Elena really embraces this dogma. Despite being (potentially) Afro-Latinx, they were both adopted by the Sullivans within days of traveling to the cult’s compound. Elena was immediately embraced by this community of white people who have quite a habit for adopting children of color lost in the foster system.

Eli can’t quite understand the pathway to Reconciliation and struggles with gaps in his memories, especially how he came to be in the isolated mountain camp where the cult attempts to be a self-sustaining community called Idyllwild. Deacon hosts a YouTube channel, where he solicits new members and donations to continue “God’s Work” of Reconciliation. When Manny’s not able to perform in the dog-and-pony show, he finds himself literally left for dead, separated from Elena and with no reasonable chance of finding her.

It’s now been a year of searching, combing through Deacon’s videos for evidence Elena’s okay. For a pathway back to the only family he’s known. In his searching, Manny discovers a body was found outside the Idyllwild encampment, and he’s afraid it’s Elena. Manny feels compelled to discover if his sister has been discarded from the community, like he was, and hitchhikes his way back to Idyllwild to find out the truth.

This is a YA coming of age mystery story that contains on-page recollections of physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, possible trafficking, and attempted sexual coercion of a minor. I’ll be honest, I struggled with this story’s flow and plot line, as Manny and Eli report their experiences through inconsistent narration. There are no actual chapters in this book, and the transitions between POV changes and the timeline of the story happen…whenever. Manny’s not sure about his next meal, his next ride, his next opportunity. Eli’s not able to figure out the path to Reconciliation, and this is an issue as he’s not able to facilitate other children choosing Deacon’s bizarre path toward enlightenment. Are those moments all flashback? Whose body has been found?

The book has some autobiographical elements, per the author, which added some gravitas to the prose. The religious cult experiences resonated for me, based on my own personal history. I liked Manny and his mission to find not only the truth about Elena, but also to bring Idyllwild and the cult into the light. To share the traumas he suffered there with people in the world who could love him for who he is: a queer kid caught in the guardianship of people who’ve never cared for him. Manny does find good people in his crusade, and he’s certainly better off in the end than he was in the cult.

I think this was an interesting book, but it didn’t actually read like a thriller, to me. The format was an impediment for me, though not because I’m all that concerned about a linear plot line. The lack of transitions just had me constantly questioning who was talking and when/where I was in the story. Enormous gaps in time, location, and experience caused me to go back to re-read a lot, and made it hard to keep that “thriller” pace, as a result. It’s also really, really long. I’m a fan of thick books, but my trouble with the pace and content made it boggy instead of anticipatory. The twist fell flat for me, mostly because it just simply didn’t mesh with the highly realistic prose to that point. The jarring discordance had me underwhelmed and feeling slightly betrayed.

While I’d like to hope these stories of abuse of kids–through religious or foster outlets–are not commonplace anymore, it seems like I read about them with abhorrent frequency in real life. I think that readers who’ve experienced trauma in their youth will find touchstones in this story.