I’ve always taken an interest in religious fundamentalism, particularly Christian patriarchy, so when I heard about Jennifer Mathieu’s latest book, Devoted, I knew I had to pick it up. It tells the story of a teenage girl, Rachel, who has been brought up in a fundamentalist home. She loves God, loves her family, and is preparing to be a wife and mother, but as the book goes on she begins to question the faith she was brought up in and wonder if there’s something more. But her parents’ worldview does not have a place for loving daughters who leave the fold; it’s all or nothing with them, and Rachel must decide if she wants to remain in the bosom of her family or chase a life of her own alone.
Mathieu provides us with a wonderfully nuanced view of the people within the Christian patriarchy movement. It’s clear that Rachel’s parents really do love their children, but at the same time they truly believe that the stifled, restricted life they’ve laid out for their sons and, especially, their daughters is the only path to heaven and eternal salvation.
Rachel begins the novel as a curious but devout teenager; though she believes in God and what she believes His plan to be in her life, she is forever looking things up in the encyclopedia, reading when she ought to be caring for her siblings, and teaching herself accounting to help her father run his family business.
The first half of the novel is more suspenseful than I’d imagined, approaching almost thriller-like levels of trepidation, as Rachel secretly looks up information on the family’s computer and sends illicit emails. I sat on the sofa, fingernails wedged between my teeth, praying that Rachel knew how to use an incognito tab. This might sound excessive, considering all she did was read the blog of a girl she used to go to church with, but the consequences of being caught are dire, and Mathieu does a very good job of creating the kind of tension children in these families really do experience when they do things that, to most of us, are not really misbehaving at all. Always looking over her shoulder, afraid she forgot to clear everything from the history, Rachel is never at peace, and neither are we.
I generally try to avoid spoilers in my recommendations, but I don’t feel like I can properly talk about this book without giving something away. If you don’t want spoilers, close your browser tab and go read the book. If you don’t mind spoilers, read on 😉
It turns out Rachel doesn’t know about incognito mode, and her family find every single one of the emails she sent to and received from the girl who left their church. They give her a choice, the kind of choice that isn’t really a choice at all: she will go to the Journey of Faith camp, or she will no longer be welcome in their home. It’s clear they expect her to go to the camp, but instead she calls Lauren, the girl she’s been communicating with, and crashes on her sofa. Journey of Faith is a pseudo-militaristic boot camp where wayward teenagers are sent to have their spirits broken through physical labour and prayer. It is, as Lauren says, a place to brainwash teenagers who have the gall to think for themselves.
Although leaving was an easy decision to make, Rachel’s life is still fraught with fear and second guesses. Is it safe to talk to her boss’s son without a chaperone present? Why did God give her an inquisitive and clever brain, if not to use it? How can a mother’s heart have space for a dozen children, but dating before marriage is giving away pieces of your heart? Slowly, she learns to trust herself to determine the answers to these questions, and develops her own relationship with God. It’s heartbreaking to watch Rachel struggle through these choices, choices that shouldn’t be a struggle at all, but at the same time there’s a sense of empowerment that she is finally accepting and respecting herself as a human being with agency.
In her first email to Rachel, Lauren quoted a line from a poem by Mary Oliver, and it becomes Rachel’s mantra throughout the novel:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Though Rachel finds peace with herself and God over her choices, though, there’s still the fact that she is alienated from her family. She wants to go home, and yet she cannot go home, not without giving up everything she has learned and decided for herself. It is soul-destroying to watch her agonise over this; I can’t help thinking how simple it should be, how her parents should be able to love and accept their daughter for whom she is, and yet they cannot.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was Rachel’s relationship with Lauren. Lauren left their community six years earlier and still struggles with it. She’s the polar opposite of her upbringing, an atheist, feminist, blue-haired vegan and, while she and Rachel have a heated disagreement over whether or not it’s okay for Rachel to still believe in God (this scene was also wonderful for Rachel finally allowing herself to be assertive and express her true feelings), they ultimately agree that everyone must make their own choices in life, and they love and support each other. It’s a beautiful testament to female friendship and the importance of unequivocal love.
Devoted casts a floodlight on the dangers of Christian patriarchy without dehumanizing the people who live and believe it. It’s a critique of religious fundamentalism that will appeal to adults, but it’s also a deeply YA story about growing up and fallibility of parents. It is, ultimately, the story of a young woman’s journey towards freedom and herself.