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#FSYALit: Doubt and the Teenage Religious Experience, thoughts on EDEN WEST (Pete Hautman), a #FSYALit post by Ally Watkins

Something Karen tweeted as we were discussing this project a while back really stuck with me. She said that discussing religion is difficult because everyone assumes they’re coming from correct place.

Man, is that ever true.

And it rings even truer in EDEN WEST, Pete Hautman’s latest about a 17-year-old boy named Jacob who has spent the majority of his life living within the walls of a fenced-in cult commune.

Jacob has had very little contact with the outside world since his parents joined the cult when he was a kid. He is sure that his belief system is correct, that Father Grace’s words are true, that the Archangel Zerachiel is going to descend from heaven and spare everyone in his church from the Apocalypse.

He believes. And he believes in a way that is really genuine. I think sometimes we as adults forget that teens can experience this depth of faith and emotion–not blind belief, but legitimate, deep conviction.

When Jacob meets Lynna, a girl who lives on the other side of the fence (very literally), he is at first horrified. He punishes himself to atone for his sin of talking to her–actual self-flagellation that is upsetting and difficult to read–and tries to forget her.  Then a new boy, Tobias, comes to the cult with his family. Tobias is belligerent, angry, and totally not buying Father Grace’s message.  Though he thinks that they are wolves that have come to lead him astray, he continues to develop relationships with Lynna and Tobias. Jacob is deeply affected by his interactions with both of these people, and he begins to doubt.

“Jacob, do you think everyone else is wrong? Everybody except a few dozen people in Montana?”

Doubt is a part of life in a faith experience, and it’s something that’s not talked about a lot. Hautman has constructed this fictional cult to highlight Jacob’s crisis of faith: In this setting, the crisis is really heightened for dramatic effect and it works very well. But I think it’s important to remember that doubt is a part of every faith experience, especially as a teenager.

Being a person of faith is hard.  Doubt is normal. Doubt is normal even if you’re not considering leaving your religion. Doubt does not mean that you’ve lost your faith (unless you want it to mean that!). I remember going through a devastating period of doubt when I was about 17. I struggled mostly in silence because I was terrified that my doubt meant I was a bad Christian or that I was losing my faith. I was scared that my faith leaders would be angry with me (they weren’t) and that this meant I wasn’t strong enough in my faith (it didn’t). It was agonizing. Teenagers are going through a lot, y’all. They’re worried about school and grades and college and faith and boys and girls and how to be people and friendships and hormones and everything. We as the adults in their lives really need to work to provide them with a safe space to ask questions about their faith and spirituality decisions. We need to let them know that these questions are ok, even healthy. Working out your own faith is a really personal process, and teens (and adults!) need to know that asking questions and exploring doubts isn’t cause to beat yourself up. Literally or figuratively.

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Candlewick included this Q&A with Hautman inside of the ARC: http://candlewick.com/book_files/0763674184.art.1.pdf

It lines up in some ways with our purposes here at #FSYALit so I wanted to make sure to include it.

An excerpt:

Eden West dips into the themes of religion, spirituality, and beliefs, similar to some of the themes you explored in your National Book Award winner, Godless. What keeps you returning to these ideas?

I am interested in faith, and how it serves us, and how it can destroy us. I think faith and religion are hugely important elements of what it is to be human. They infuse our every thought, and they drive life-and-death decisions every single day. So why do so few young-adult books touch upon issues of faith and religion? Most YA novels never mention religion at all. What sort of church does Bella Swan go to? Does Katniss Everdeen believe in God? What about Bilbo Baggins, or Harry Potter? I’m not suggesting that YA books should all contain a religious component—in fact, most of my own books do not—but I do think there’s a lot of avoidance on the part of authors who don’t want to offend anyone or cost themselves sales. People can get very prickly about religion, so it’s a bit of a minefield. I guess I’m attracted to that.

For more on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, check out the #FSYALit Hub

Today’s post is written by Ally Watkins, co-coordinator of the #FSYALit Project. For more about Ally please check out the About TLT page.

Publisher’s Book Description:

A world within a world…

Twelve square miles of paradise, surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence: this is Nodd, the land of the Grace. It is all Jacob knows. Beyond the fence lies the World, a wicked, terrible place, doomed to destruction. Only the Grace will be spared.

But something is rotten in paradise. A wolf invades Nodd, slaughtering the Grace’s sheep. A new boy arrives from outside, and his scorn and disdain threaten to tarnish Jacob’s contentment. Then, while patrolling the borders of Nodd, Jacob meets Lynna, a girl who tempts him to sample forbidden Worldly pleasures.

Jacob’s faith, his devotion, and his grip on reality are tested as his feelings for Lynna blossom into something greater and the End Days grow ever closer.

Eden West is the story of two worlds, two hearts, the power of faith, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Published April 2015 by Candlewick Press

Comments

  1. You’ve hit on something here that hadn’t fully occurred to me–that this wave of cult books hits HARD on the “what if everything I know is a lie/an illusion/unreal?” questions that every teenager I knew was fascinated by. (I think the equivalent from my tween years would be RUNNING OUT OF TIME, which didn’t directly invoke religion but really played into the whole “everyone thought this would be in your best interests, and it’s true enough, ish, for us…” thing that really dramatizes the process of individuating from your parents and other authority figures, including a religion.)

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