The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a young adult novel by American writer Stephanie Oakes. The eponymous protagonist is seventeen and has recently experienced her first love affair, but this is a dark novel with some extremely harrowing scenes, so don't assume the target audience makes it a lighter read.

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At the start of the book, Minnow is arrested in mysterious circumstances for a shockingly brutal crime. One of the first things we learn about her is that she has recently lost both her hands, and shortly afterwards we discover that she has spent the last 12 years living in a polygamous cult in a strange, enclosed community hidden in the Montana wilderness. The Kevinians live their lives away from the 'Gentiles' in accordance with a set of oppressive rules laid down by their increasingly tyrannical leader. Women are subordinate; non-white people are considered evil; there is no medical care, no electricity, no running water - and most importantly, no escape. But when Minnow stumbles across Jude, a mixed-race boy living with his father in a forest cabin, she begins to question life in the Community more than ever before.

Much of the story is told in flashback, interspersed with present-day sections detailing Minnow's life in 'juvie', essentially an American young offenders' institute (which, frankly, is quite an eye-opener in terms of the way children are treated by the American justice system). Investigating the horrors of the Community and trying to get to the bottom of its Prophet's death is an FBI officer who regularly interviews Minnow and to whom she tells her story in uneasy, selective stages.

The relationship between Minnow and this officer felt somewhat uncomfortable for me as a reader, not least because he is described as a counsellor but behaves like nothing of the sort. He is clearly a detective first and foremost and his questioning of Minnow is often manipulative and even edging towards cruel. However, there are also times when he seems more sympathetic as a character, and the uneasy deal that Minnow strikes with him is, ultimately, one that works in her favour. This is a novel in which adults and teenagers are, in general, wary of one another, with the children in the novel repeatedly failed by the adults around them.

There were several elements of The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly that stretched credibility for me, and  its weakest point was in fact the resolution of the mystery of the Prophet's murder, which felt anticlimactic. Minnow's adaptation to life a) with no hands and b) away from the Kevinians seemed to be surprisingly simple, too.

I note that classifies this as Young Adult => Literature & Fiction => Religious. I have no idea if the author intends the book to have a religious message: one of the threads of the story involves Minnow rejecting the beliefs of the Kevinian cult and she is, overall, relatively positive about her experience at a meeting of the prison Christian group, in contrast to her resentful cellmate, who has rejected religion after being abused by her devout uncle and prides herself on her knowledge of science. However, if there is intended to be a Christian message here about the dangers of false prophets, it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, not least because the language and manner in which the Kevinians' bizarre beliefs are expressed makes them feel almost like a biblical parody.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is an intense, well-written novel which, if you share my fascination with isolated cults and fundamentalist communities, couldn't fail to engage you. Some of the darker elements are perhaps a little melodramatic, but overall it's a gripping read with a note of hope at the end.