The Story: Devoted, a standalone novel by Jennifer Mathieu, tells the story of Rachel Walker, a young teenage girl living in an uber-strict Christian community where a woman’s predestined path in life is to be a wife and mother of an expansive household. While Rachel takes no issues with God, she sees the flaws in her family and everything she has been taught over the years, but questions aren’t allowed in her home or church. When Rachel finally gets the chance to break away, she takes it and is opened to a wider world of possibilities. But inside she feels old loyalties resurfacing – will Rachel return to what she’s always known or will she forge a new path for herself?
My Take: As a Christian (and a former homeschooled kid), I always feel a bit apprehensive any time a fictional story comes out that focuses on a small segment of the “Christian” or homeschooling community. (I say “Christian” in quotes because these types of sects, cults, etc. usually highlighted in such stories do not follow Scriptural teachings and merely twist the Bible to fit their needs.) My fear is that people who are not religious will assume the worst about Christians and think all families who homeschool do so for devious reasons. Hence was my worry about this novel and I almost didn’t read it, assuming it was going to examine one segment of people and make scathing, overarching judgments. But, as it turned out, my fears were never confirmed and, for that, I was both surprised and impressed.
(Before I begin this review, I want to say that my remarks will probably be geared more for Christian readers who are considering this book. That’s not to say non-religious readers won’t get anything out of what I have to share, but be mindful that I’m going to be exploring this novel’s theological musings as well as its literary merit.)
Devoted focuses on Rachel Walker, a teenage girl living in a “Christian” home that is part of the quiverfull movement (though it’s never called by that name in the novel). I had never heard of the quiverfull movement before and did some light research into it. In brief, this movement (which, by the way, is not indicative of all Christians) applies a very literal meaning to Psalm 127:3-5. While the Psalm’s author is actually using a metaphoric device, some persons have interpreted these verses to mean that a Christian household should literally be full of children, regardless whether or not the couple can effectively or economically care and provide for them. The man’s role is to be the head of the family, but any Scriptural requirements for the husband to love his wife and be willing to sacrifice himself for her are disregarded in favor of a one-sided, patriarchal power structure (as opposed to mutual love and respect as taught in Ephesians 5:22-33).
In Devoted, young Rachel questions not so much her faith in God but the additional requirements she’s been taught pertaining to this quiverfull ideology, especially as far as her own personal wishes and dreams are concerned. Thus, this is a cathartic read where her inner frustrations emerge through the page in a very organic way, not via teenage angst which would have been tempting to employ given Rachel’s age. I really felt for Rachel as she models a more theologically-sound Christianity than her parents and peers yet she’s misunderstood. She expresses kindness, love, righteous anger, and a level-head yet is treated as a dissenter by others within her community even though, oddly enough, she demonstrates and lives out a clearer understanding of Scripture than they do.
One excellent example of this is an incident when Rachel is “caught” reading her favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time. Rachel is correct in saying that the novel expresses Christian themes that coincide with the Bible, but her father only sees that the book contains elements of science fiction and fantasy and, hence, cannot be “godly” though he never defines nor explains his position. Rachel is the one in the right here as she has employed Biblical discernment to her reading choices, yet according to the beliefs of her community she can’t contradict her father, even though he is wrong, and is forced to give up something she loves. Thus, Rachel’s disconnect with her family’s brand of faith starts in slow steps and builds gradually which, again, came across as very realistic in its pacing and not hurried for the sake of plot. Throughout the novel, it’s easy to put one’s self in Rachel’s shoes as she comes across as a very genuine narrator. While sometimes I wonder why a book was penned using first-person narration when perhaps third-person might suit it better, Devoted is a deeply personal novel for its lead character and, hence, couldn’t really be told any other way.
The faith Rachel’s family prescribes to is based on legalism and male dominance, not Biblical mercy; grace; compassion; and mutual submission, love, and respect. One scene that struck me as particularly poignant and indicative of the type of legalistic “faith” Rachel’s family practiced was when her father tries to console her mother after a devastating loss. Rather than show love to his wife and be mindful of her emotional needs, he just spouts off Bible verses, essentially telling her to snap out of her funk. Just before he goes on another one of his tirades, Rachel’s mother asks him to just talk to her – not preach, but talk. Her words cut my heart as I have seen “Christians” spout off the Bible to people in need yet lack compassion – it’s an unattractive combination to say the least (see II Corinthians 13:1-8).
While the first half of the novel focuses on Rachel’s home life, the middle portions introduce us to Lauren Sullivan, a former member of Rachel’s church who rebelled and went her separate way. Rachel begins to communicate with Lauren and finds in her a kindred spirit of sorts: Lauren questions what she’s been taught, possesses a wider view of the world, and wants to pursue her dreams of being a veterinarian. However, Rachel and Lauren are a good study in contrasts. While Lauren has all but completely abandoned any relationship with God and delved into some questionable lifestyle choices, Rachel loves God and ultimately wants to do what’s morally right. To her credit, Mathieu creates this balance of opposites that presents Rachel as the better example rather than applaud Lauren’s rebel heart as Rachel’s experiences haven’t hardened her so much that she views God in light of some of the erroneous beliefs within her faith community.
Another thing Mathieu got right for me was the fact that she portrays Christians as unalike. It’s easy to see how the members of Rachel’s church might mean well but miss the mark when it comes to truly living out Christ’s example. But eventually Rachel gets to experience a different worship service where joyful celebration replaces dour expressions and the Bible isn’t twisted to tickle the congregation’s ears nor tie them up in shackles to false doctrine. It’s a great study in contrasts again and I was glad it was included.
If I had any negative comment to say about this book, I think it would be that I would have liked to have seen some of the goings-on at the reeducation camp that Rachel’s church sent kids and teens to for misbehaving. Rachel is threatened with attending this yet I would have liked to have seen what happened there. It’s possible it would have been redundant, but for its build up and referencing throughout the book’s early chapters, a small peek would have settled some questions in my mind. But it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me that it wasn’t included and perhaps it wasn’t because there are other novels in the same vein that have done exactly that; so perhaps the author simply wanted her novel to stand apart in that way.
As a whole, this novel caused me to experience a myriad of emotions, from frustration over Rachel’s family restricting her when Rachel wasn’t doing anything wrong, to Rachel’s desire to pursue her dreams, to her ability to keep her faith regardless of negative influences. Thus, Devoted ends on a triumphant note: the Christian community isn’t demonized, Lauren isn’t hailed as a hero for losing her faith, and Rachel doesn’t become a wild child. Those are three things I feared this novel would so yet, thankfully, it didn’t. It was a perfectly balanced story, deep with rich emotion that avoids being sappy and contains realistic characters that weren’t tropes. In short, this YA novel really impressed me with how it deftly and respectfully handled what could have been a touchy subject. And for that, I give Mathieu a great deal of credit.
Language – A handful of profanities crop up towards the novel’s middle portions and are chiefly spoken by Lauren (including an f-word or two) but certainly nothing pervasive.
Violence – None (in terms of actual violence or peril), but there are moments of intense emotional stress for Rachel, and some of the final scenes are particularly heartbreaking.
Sexual Content -None, though there is general/generic talk of remaining sexually pure until marriage, pornography, and modesty. Later, there is an obvious attraction between Rachel and a young man she meets on the job but their encounters are chaste.
Thematic Material – Even though this novel doesn’t contain anything most parents or guardians would find troublesome in terms of content, I still recommend reading it first before passing it off to any teen reader as it contains quite a bit of discussion material, especially regarding faith and false doctrine in Christian circles, that would be good to openly address.
Overall, Devoted was a highly-enjoyable novel and I was surprised at how much I liked it. I would strongly encourage Christian readers in particular to pick this book up as it paints a good picture of what true faith looks like and how emotionally and spiritually damaging a counterfeit truth can be. All in all, I’d highly recommend this novel as it’s a very emotional and thought-provoking YA read and really is something rare for its genre.