I vaguely remember when the 1993 Waco siege happened, though I didn’t pay much attention at the time. I would chuckle when classmates joked that “Waco” stands for “We Ain’t Comin’ Out,” without thinking about the tragic implications of such gallows humor.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, there was a religious cult called the Branch-Davidians, led by a charismatic sociopath named David Koresh, who lived in a fenced-in compound outside of Waco, Texas. Koresh and his followers had been stock-piling weapons and readying themselves for “the final battle,” until ATF and FBI agents laid siege to their compound for almost two months. The stand-off ended in a horrific fire and gunfight that left 76 cult members dead.
Author Will Hill used the events in Waco as inspiration for his new YA novel, After the Fire. The narrator of the story is a 17-year-old girl named Moonbeam, whose parents joined “The Lord’s Legion,” a separatist religious group in West Texas, when she was a baby. After a government raid on their compound destroys her home and kills almost everyone she knows, Moonbeam is asked by a therapist and an FBI agent to reconstruct an account of her life before and of the events leading up to the fire that destroyed her world. Even as Moonbeam tries to process the horrific events that have happened to her, she struggles to overcome the training and programming she received from “Father John” and the other adults in her life.
Using the fire as the hinge event of the narrative, the story is told in a series of “Before” and “After” chapters, as Moonbeam cautiously reveals more and more of her experience to the two men asking her questions every day–two men who, as Outsiders, she was raised never to trust.
Faith and Fear
From the beginning, I was intrigued by the premise, but I was a little cautious about the execution. After all, this is a mainstream novel exploring religious themes. The use of a “fringe Christian cult” as the backdrop of the story can go a few different ways, and I was bracing for the author to pull out his broadest brushes with which to paint people of faith. While there ultimately aren’t any examples of true Christian teaching or faith present in the novel, the author makes clear that he is not applying the Legion’s activities to Christendom at large. (In fact, I really appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, in which he explicitly stated that his goal was not to stereotype religion in general or Christianity specifically.)
From the beginning, it’s clear that this religious cult borrows heavily from Biblical language, though any fair-minded reader can clearly see that what they practice is a man-centered, blood-thirsty corruption of Christianity. The group’s leader, Father John, sets himself up as the sole mouthpiece of God, and twists the Scriptures and Scriptural language to manipulate his followers and use their fear to keep them under his control. For all the use of Biblical language, the name of Jesus is barely if ever spoken, and the grace and mercy of God is out-right contradicted by Father John. So it’s plain to all but the most jaded reader that this isn’t Gospel Christianity in this story.
In fact, there are several discussions in which the issue of faith is addressed, and the question is almost always about faith in people–in parents, in friends, in religious leaders. Over and over, the story demonstrates that faith put in people is ultimately shaken because people are sinful, self-interested, and fearful creatures. One would hope that such concepts would lead the reader to look for something stronger and truer in which to believe.
Not As Dark as Expected–But Dark Enough
Given the topic, you would expect that the novel’s content drifts into some pretty dark places–and it does, to be sure. Thankfully, the author remembers that he’s writing a YA (“young adult”–think teenage audience) novel, so the content is not as graphic as many mainstream novels might take it.
That said, there is strong language throughout, clear implications of sinful (and criminal) behavior, and one uncomfortable scene involving an interrupted sexual crime. None of this sinful behavior is glorified, but the descriptions may be uncomfortable or disturbing, especially for those who have been victims of abuse.
There is a question to be considered at this point, which I can’t answer for anyone but myself: “How much darkness can I tolerate being depicted/described before it stops being worth reading or watching?” As a Christian, I must apply the Philippians 4:8 filter to my entertainment and decide if a piece of art is too dark to justify taking in for entertainment.
In the case of this novel, I feel like it’s really a close call. Getting to step inside the shoes of someone who grew up in a closed religious cult was intriguing; however, the darkness of the some plot elements made me start to question if it was worth finishing the story.
After the Fire is an effective and engrossing tale about a young woman finding the strength to face the darkness of her past and the courage to move forward into an uncertain future. The author explores the effects of conditioning and control on people seeking to escape from religious cults, and the power of using fear to keep people imprisoned.
Given the subject matter and content concerns, I don’t feel comfortable recommending this book broadly. However, if the reader will keep those caveats in mind and use discernment in their reading, they may find this book to be an fascinating novel about surviving trauma and overcoming fear.
Please Note: I was sent an e-book copy of this novel (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.