A rebellious young Eve stands at the center of a novel about a Midwestern religious cult.
The protagonist of Thomas Rayfiel’s “Colony Girl,” a novel about a Midwestern religious cult, is named Eve. But does she have to be? Couldn’t someone named, say, Jennifer question theological authority? Eve (“Just Eve. No last names in the Bible”) is a fatherless teenager who moved with her mother to “the Colony” as a small child. She takes bites out of several varieties of forbidden apples — sex, power, employment. Like her biblical namesake, she gains knowledge but little peace.
A charismatic leader named Gordon presides at the Colony. Gordon, Eve’s mother’s ex-boyfriend in their former life, exerts a power and fascination over his congregation, Eve included. “We all feared and craved him,” she recalls. Gordon has escaped the black-and-white stereotypes usually assigned to communal religious extremists: He is affable, hilarious and smart, loosening the restrictions on his adolescent followers right about the time they would be tempted to rebel. His personality makes for a story that’s complex and at times contradictory; just as Gordon allows Eve the unheard-of freedom of taking a summer job on a highway construction crew, he becomes engaged to one of her 16-year-old friends, prompting Eve to grumble, “There should be a Newer Testament … One where you don’t get married just because you start getting your period.”
Gordon is also slightly mad. He’s drifted away from the center of the Colony and spends much of the book mysteriously holed up in his house drinking soda pop and watching TV. When Eve’s friend says Gordon has to pray about when the right time for her to marry would be, Eve cracks, “He has to pray … in front of ‘Mod Squad.’” Eve is not only Gordon’s best friend, she is also his double — they’re both strong, opinionated and lonely. And Eve herself feels rumblings of a call to preach.
Eve’s job and her schooling both bring her into town. Literally living in two worlds, she is caught between them. For all her hard-boiled teenage wisecracks about her home life, she doesn’t dismiss it; nor does she idolize the townsfolk. She rolls her eyes at the superstitious citizens’ misconception that Gordon is blind, an idea spun from the thin air of their paranoia. And when her sexy secular boyfriend confides that he thinks she’s special, she replies, “No, I’m not. I’m absolutely ordinary. You just think I’m different because I live in the Colony. You’re just curious.” She’s right.
Eve’s struggles against authority, her questioning of her beliefs, her pursuit of independence and sex and love are all perfectly normal adolescent behavior. Take away the freakish cult setting and you have a pleasant if conventional Bildungsroman. Rayfiel’s nicest trick is giving Eve a heart and mind without exaggerating her precocity. In a scene that rings with an awkward, adolescent truth, Eve the would-be preacher attends a crucial meeting at the Colony at which she disagrees with what’s being said. Inwardly she knows exactly what to say and how to say it. “But growing up wasn’t like that,” she remembers. She doesn’t utter a peep, instead running out of the room angry at her cowardly self and admitting, “I was still this stammering, blushing, gawky girl.”
Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive. More Sarah Vowell.
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