Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: April 2nd 2013
The Shelter Cycle begins in Boise, Idaho with the search for an abducted girl. After a day of helping with the search, Francine Davidson and her husband, Wells, are visited by a friend from her past, Colville. It is a strained visit, with partial reminiscences of their childhood and talk of the missing girl. As children, Francine and Colville lived with their families in Montana as part of a religious group whose beliefs harkened back to ancient times, when man believed the world to be filled with malevolent spirits and unknown entities were waiting to steal one’s soul. Their leader is known as the Messenger and she guides them in their mission, to survive a Soviet nuclear missile attack, which will arrive in the late 1980s. To this end they are building shelters far underground in the Montana mountains. In the meantime, they live in isolation: physically, mentally and emotionally off-the-grid. In order to protect themselves from the evil in the spirit world and to raise their consciousness to the next level, they employ chanting and rituals as well as tenets that detail almost every aspect of life from what colors to wear and what foods are safe to eat.
The day of the apocalypse comes and goes without change and the followers return aboveground and either stay within the group or leave. Both the families of Francine and Colville leave. Present day finds Francine in the real world,—happily married and expecting her first child. After the death of his brother in the Iraq War, Colville returns to the world of their religion, finding solace in the signs, spirits and hidden meaning. His appearance in Francine’s life is not a coincidence but something he believes to be part of a much larger plan.
Francine’s visit with Colville awakens her memories of her childhood and the Activity. She begins writing about that time in her life but as her due date nears she feels compelled to leave Idaho and return to the shelter in Montana. What she hopes to learn or discover is not clear, she is simply compelled to go. She does so without telling her husband.
Some of this, as I write it now, hardly seems real to me, or believable. But I wonder how much of anything can slip away from inside you if you believed it at one time. I write one memory in this letter, then remember another, and another, all coming up from inside to surprise me.
At the same time, Colville also returns to the Shelter. For him it is the next step in his mission and he stays for many days, deep in the bowels of the compound. He undergoes many experiences but whether they are real or hallucinations is not known. Without knowledge of the other’s presence, Francine and Colville leave Montana and begin a return to Idaho. For Francine the trip has brought some comfort but no answers. For Colville, his next steps are crystal clear.
Author Peter Rock wrote The Shelter Cycle using research from and interviews with the members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, an apocalyptic cult that believed the world would end in the late 1980s. His talent for writing from the perspective of an outsider or outcast has already been shown in his startling, disturbing novel, My Abandonment, in which a girl and her father live in a nature preserve outside Portland for almost ten years. Like The Shelter Cycle, it is based on a true story. Through his quiet prose Rock is able to slide the reader into the minds of his characters in a way that blurs the edges of their unusual beliefs and makes them seem like the rest of the secular world. Right up until they aren’t. It is at this point, the intersection of reality and extreme religious fervor, that events pass the tipping point and what was viewed as eccentric or merely odd becomes menacing and filled with danger. Rock’s ability to assimilate us into the other environment makes this realization that much more unnerving, icy cold water on the face.
The Shelter Cycle is a finely crafted story of reality and religious belief and how the two, for some, can be one and the same. This makes for reading that is intense because it challenges perceptions and understanding. As the story progresses, a sense of magical unreality permeates the text, furthering a sense of discomfort that does not dissipate even by the book’s end. This discomfort, this dis-ease, is the final proof that Peter Rock has succeeded in stretching out the literary boundaries illuminating the unknowability of life.