Published by Little Brown and Company
Publication date: pbk release, February 2014
Genres: Childhood, Contemporary, Fiction
Earlier in the year I reviewed a novel (The Visionist) where a mother and her children run for safety to a religious compound. In Peggy Riley’s Amity & Sorrow it is the opposite situation. Amaranth and her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow, are running from their compound because its founder, Amaranth’s husband, has decided it is the end days and has set it on fire so they may all be saved. Amaranth is a devout follower but is not willing to make this sacrifice nor is she willing to leave her daughters behind, despite the fierce religiosity of one of them who believes herself to be the sect’s oracle. For Sorrow, their departure is just that and in order to keep her from escaping she is tied to her younger sister’s wrist. When, after four days of driving without stopping (in fear of her husband’s pursuit), Amaranth crashes into a tree on a farm in the Oklahoma panhandle, the lives of all three women change dramatically.
Bradley is the owner of the farm and lives there with his aged father. He is a kind man but one whose every waking moment is spent working his farm and trying to pay off his debts. The arrival of three females with no skills beyond cooking food (of which he has little) and a lack of even the most basic survival skills, such as how to use electricity, tell time, or read, tests his compassion. Add to that the fact that Sorrow wishes to return to her Father and has a penchant for setting things on fire and these women are a burden he does not need.
For Amaranth and Amity the farm and its inhabitants are a source of a newfound self-reliance and discovery. Commandments that Amity has been held to since birth are discarded and ignored. She can walk in the fields, she can enter a man’s house, she can learn to read and go into town. Her awakening is charming and disconcerting, simply because it is almost impossible to comprehend a pre-teen girl who does not know about television, how to turn on a stove, or what a map is. And yet, that is the world she was raised in. Her Father kept his family of fifty wives in complete isolation and ignorance. They cannot even read the Bible and so rely completely on what he says to be the truth. His only concession to the outside world is to run a meth factory in one of the barns and to partake liberally of his own product—until the barn explodes and nearly kills him. Even then the wives are not told the truth and only the newer ones, who have recently arrived, know what happened.
Amity & Sorrow is creepier than a ghost story because despite being fiction much of it is all too real to anyone who has ever been around or read about the polygamist factions of Mormon fundamentalists. Riley admits using Under the Banner of Heaven as part of her research and while she is careful to say that the novel is not specifically about fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, there are several instances of her citing doctrinal practices used by that cult. The non-fiction aspects aside, Riley deftly presents the two faces of the same coin—one, where escape brings a whole new life and the other, where the real world is an abomination and return home is the only means to salvation. The fact that the coin is sisters who have been each other’s sole source of companionship and are now strangers gives Amity & Sorrow a painful tension. For every day that Amity thrives, Sorrow moves further away from sanity and closer to being her Father’s daughter. How far will she go and can Amaranth save her daughters?