Hold on to your hats kids, I love this book and so may be a bit gushy!
Moonbeam has grown up living in a cult in the desert in America. The cult, or God’s Legion live in a commune and are led by the charismatic and scary Father John. Moonbeam has lived there for most of her life after her father saw the previous leader, Father Patrick, speak. He moved Moon and her mum there and became one of the top leaders . He then died.
Moonbeam is left there with her mum, who she has quite a fractious relationship with and the rest of the commune. We first meet Moonbeam when she is locked in a secure facility with some other kids from the commune. We slowly learn that there has been a massive fire after the commune is attacked by government agencies and something has happened which Moonbeam feels she is responsible for. The book is written in the present with flashbacks to events that took place before the fire. Moonbeam is being interviewed by a Doctor, Doctor Hernandez and an FBI agent called Agent Carlyle. They are both interested in how the Legion worked and particularly about its leader.
We learn through the flashbacks that the commune is run by Father John with a rod of iron. Any misdemeanour means time in the box, a metal box in the middle of the desert. Father John lives in the ‘big house’ with his wives and there are mysterious visits by other men to the girls rooms unless you are promised to Father John as a future wife. Moonbeam is one of these and, when she turns 18 she will have to marry him. There is also extensive weapons training for when the day comes that the Legion is attacked by the Outsiders and they will need to protect themselves. Everyone needs to take part in this and combat training, including young children, of which there are quite a few.
We soon realise that Moonbeam has no experience of the outside world, once Father John takes over the leadership no one is allowed to leave the compound except Amos, one of the Legionaires. He goes once a week to collect supplies and packages addressed to a James Carmel. Father John takes these and no one else knows what they contain.
A new member called Nate arrives and Moonbeam likes him. She follows him around and he starts to make her realise that there are things going on that are not right. He eventually jeopardises his position within the group and needs to leave, this prompts Moonbeam to start thinking about getting out.
This book is frightening and hard hitting and violent. It is also about how religion can be used to twist people’s beliefs and used as a weapon of control. The people who live in the commune give up their lives for something that they believe is true. They think that when you die, you will ascend to Heaven and sit with God, this is the ultimate reward. This is most disturbing when we meet Luke, another teenager living in the commune who was the first child to be born and brought up there. He has no knowledge of the real world except for what he is told by the leaders. He is a fanatical believer.
Father John is also terrifying. He controls everyone and everything within the commune. He does this through fear and retribution, not something that you should associate with a peaceful, loving community.
The author wrote this book after a memory of the Waco massacre was awakened after a trip to America. I remember this because I was a teenager when it happened. This was a religious commune who lived Texas and was run by another charismatic leader, David Koresh. The Branch Davidians were a break off group of the Seventh Day Adventists and set up a commune where they stashed weapons for defense against the ‘end times’. The siege in the early nineties lasted for 51 days and was all over the news, eventually 76 people died. This is kind of an exploration of what it would have been like to be a teenager living though that. There are lots of adult stuff going on that Moonbeam cannot understand but, as an outsider we can see that what is going on is wrong and she cannot be blamed for what happens.
I loved Department 19 and I also loved this. Will Hill is a fantastic writer who really gets in to the mind of the characters and takes us there too. Moonbeam is a strong girl despite her upbringing and we are rooting for her to be ok. As a woman and a mother it was frustrating to see how the women were portrayed though, would they really put their children in such danger or did they really believe that this was a safe environment for them to grow up in? It is a dark novel though, and explores some really complex and disturbing themes. Make sure you are in a happy place when you read it!
Further reading: Whit by Ian Banks (this is one of my all time favourite books and is a humorous take on living in a cult) and The Girls by Emma Cline (this is definitely for older readers though so be careful – it is a very disturbing book!)