Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Read: 22 July, 2015

Anyone who has been following my book reviews for a while knows that I am rather fascinated by Christian fundamentalism, particularly of the Quiverfull variety. So far, I’ve covered Kathryn Joyce’s groundbreaking Quiverfull, as well as the Duggars’ (who popularized the movement through their reality show on the TLC channel) 20 and Counting. I also regularly read blogs like Love, Joy, FeminismBroken DaughtersDefeating the Dragons, and Cynthia Jeub’s new blog. And, of course, Vyckie Garrison’s No Longer Quivering that started it all.

There’s a sideshow aspect to my fascination, I suppose, because the lifestyle and beliefs really are weird. But far more than that, I think I feel so attracted to these narratives is because of how familiar they are. When I read Garrison’s early posts, I could see her brain working the way mine works, her conclusions trending in the same directions. Had I been exposed to fundamentalist Christianity at certain points of my life, I’m pretty sure that I could have – that I would have fallen into the same traps. So when I read these accounts, it’s with the relief of a narrow miss, and perhaps an inoculation.

In any case, all this is just to say that I was very intrigued when I heard about Devoted, and I ordered it through my library immediately.

The book follows Rachel Walker, the second daughter and currently eldest in-house, of a family with eleven children. She is responsible for cooking, laundry, cleaning, teaching, and caring for her younger siblings. She is a mom in all but status – a mom to an industrial-sized family. Things start to change for Rachel when a miscarriage throws her mother into a terrible depression just as Lauren comes back to town.

I really enjoyed Devoted. At first, I wasn’t too sure about Rachel. I was glad that she wasn’t a transplanted feminist, nor does her epiphany processes seem too easy. She just seemed so very immature, and I worried that it might be due to Mathieu’s poor writing. About a quarter of the way through, however, I realized that quite the opposite was the case. Rachel was immature because of course she was, she has been sheltered her entire life, denied all opportunity to form thoughts of her own. Once she starts thinking, however, she develops beautifully, and it’s wonderful to see that process. Mathieu handles it exquisitely.

I really enjoyed the depictions of both Lauren and Mark. It would have been very easy to have them there to serve the purpose of progressing Rachel – Lauren could have said all the right things, Mark could have swept her off her feet. In the hands of a lesser writer, that’s exactly what would have happened.

But Lauren is flawed, and she is still going through the same process as Rachel, albeit farther along and on a different path. And that’s the best part of her character – that she and Rachel are growing differently, coming to different conclusions, yet they are able to learn together and support each other. Seeing Rachel assert herself and firmly explain to Lauren that she can’t go from being under her father’s protection to being under Lauren’s protection was wonderful and very moving.

I enjoyed the little games Rachel plays with Mark, and his efforts to be conscientious despite her needs being so alien to him. (SPOILERS: I was also very glad that they never kissed or entered into any kind of relationship – I didn’t feel that Rachel was really ready for that yet, even by the end, and it would have seemed somewhat predatory for Mark to approach her in that way while she remains still so innocent and child-like. Developing their friendship, allowing Rachel to learn that it’s okay to be around boys, to be friends with boys, struck just the right tone.)

Rachel’s experiences are, to use her word, complicated, but Mathieu wisely didn’t make them horrific, though I do think she could have covered the good times a little more – Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism makes a point of talking about her family’s closeness, her good memories, to balance the bad, and Devoted didn’t really have any of that. Apart from Ruth, it didn’t really seem like Rachel had any attachment to her siblings, not even the little ones. I think it would have made her decision to leave her family more painful, and her initial depression more relatable. But that is my only complaint in a book full of great characterization.

I really enjoyed Devoted. Mathieu made a lot of great choices, and I really had the feeling that I was getting to know the characters – to the point of being a little sad when the book was over because I wouldn’t get to be in their lives any more. She’s managed to provide a lovely companion piece for Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull.

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The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce

Read: 20 August, 2013

In The Child Catchers, Joyce returns to the world of Christian Patriarchy that she explored in Quiverfull, looking this time at the adoption movement.

I first encountered this phenomenon on the Love, Joy, Feminism blog, in the context of how Michael and Debi Pearl’s child “training” methods (which are abusive enough when followed to the letter) seem prone to turning deadly when applied to children who have been adopted. In The Child Catchers, Joyce goes into much more detail – how the supply/demand economic model, when applied to children, is disastrous; it’s disastrous to the children, to their biological parents, to the countries they are recruited from, and even, sometimes, their adoptive families.

It’s a really interesting (and scary!) topic, and I do think that it should be a must read for anyone considering international adoption.

Joyce’s style is quite interesting. She tells a story and presents facts, but she’s not obviously pushing an argument. In fact, she quite deliberately gives voices to many sides, showing how inherently complex the issues she’s covering are.

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The Duggars: 20 and Counting! by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar

Read: 16 January, 2012

My great challenge in writing this review is to critique the book itself, not the faith that motivates it. The two are so intertwined that sometimes it’s impossible to speak of one without speaking of the other. This book is, after all, part of the Duggar ministry.

This is never more clear than the structure of the book. Superficially, it chronicles the history of the Duggar family, from Michelle and Jim Bob’s childhoods until just before the birth of their 18th child. But the stories are told in such a way as to reinforce the thesis of their ministry: In each case, there is a problem or a crisis, the Duggars react by either “listening to God” or listening to their fears, or greed, or ambition, and then things suddenly and serendipitously resolve.

The lesson, of course, is that God can be counted upon to provide. This has the potential to be very dangerous theology, as we see in Prosperity theology, but at least the Duggars impose limitations, such as refusing to borrow money. Even so, this “leave it to God” attitude has a lot of potential for harm when they follow it to the point of making themselves responsible for 18 children. The Duggars have done well for themselves, but many Quiverfull families haven’t, living well below the poverty line and denying their children basic necessities such as health and dental care. To make matters worse, the repetition that God will provide if the family puts sufficient trust in him implicitly sends the message that those families that are not surviving are failing because they are not putting sufficient trust in God, which would mean that they should give up more control and have more children…

I also noticed that the Duggars have tried to fit parts of their story into a Biblical narrative, such as Jim Bob’s references to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as analogous to his political campaign. It isn’t bludgeoning, as I’ve seen elsewhere, but they certainly are speaking to their audience.

Further on that point, I noticed a lot of formulaic phrasing. These are phrases included in the narrative, ostensibly in the voice of Jim Bob or Michelle, but that are repeated frequently (either in the book itself or in the wider evangelical community, or both). For example, the words “Children are a blessing from the Lord” is repeated, without variation, multiple times and integrated into multiple different sentences. I’ve noticed the family use these little phrases in the TV show as well, and it’s always felt scripted and rehearsed, making the family seem insincere.

Speaking of the TV show, I feel that I can’t talk about the book without comparing it to the show (of which I’ve only watched the 18 and Counting season, which overlapped nicely with much of the topics discussed in the book). To its credit, this book never felt like just another TV show tie in. Rather, it had real content and was entirely readable even for families that do not have a television and have never seen the show – which I imagine was intentional given the Duggars’ TV viewing philosophy.

I found the differences between the TV show and the book interesting, and it speaks to just how media savvy the Duggars are. The TV show, clearly intended for a broader audience, focuses on the fuzzy family happiness. God is ever present, but more as an underlying principle. The goal, clearly, is to make the show interesting for “lukewarm Christians,” drawing them into the lifestyle with promises of the happy, close-knit family, without scaring them off with too much God-talk. The book, on the other hand, is clearly marketed at the converted, perhaps young couples who already hold Quiverfull values but who are afraid of taking that next big step. I imagine that this book is intended to be passed around in churches, recommended to new couples or given to new parents. As a result, the God-talk is front and centre, with every story coming back to God and to the Biblical underpinnings of Duggar theology. If the TV show is the infomercial, the book is the hard sell.

But given this, I found it interesting that any Biblical passages references were hidden away in the end notes, not displayed in the actual pages either as footnotes or embedded in the text. Given the audience and the fact that the Duggars are clearly not holding back on the God-talk in other ways, I found this detail very interesting.

In closing, I would like to share a recent post written by Libby Anne that was running through my mind as I read: From cog to individual.

The Duggars: 2o and Counting! was a better read than I expected, and it was interesting for me because of my interest in the Quiverfull movement. But the advice is all tied to the ministry, so don’t bother if you are looking for real tips for managing your household! The recipes provided, while interesting and great for bulk cooking, look awful and have very low nutritional value. Much of their advice for making money or being frugal relied on tales of their good luck (err… good “faith,” as Jim Bob prefers to call it), and many of their organizational tips are good but require substantial remodling of the average home to accommodate. In other words, I’d recommend this book for people with an interest in the movement, whether they are thinking of joining it or merely studying it. For anyone else, meh.

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Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce

Read: 10 August, 2009

Joyce examines not so much the Quiverfull movement as she does the Christian Patriarchy movement – Quiverfull, of course, being one component of it. The Patriarchy movement centres around the belief that feminism has caused a number of social ills that can be remedied only by having women leave the workforce and return home to be submissive wives and mothers. Quiverfull is the added belief that all attempts to limit the number of children a family has is an insult to God (the most famous practitioners being the Duggar family with their eighteen – and counting – children).

Joyce’s analysis is mostly uncritical, her own feelings only rarely show through and, then, introduced explicitly as her own views. Her style is to simply narrate with few adjectives the views of her subjects and allowing them to speak for themselves.

Despite her fairness, Joyce’s writing style leaves something to be desired. Her sentences are so long and cover so many different ideas at once that I frequently found myself having to go back and read again. This interrupted the flow of my reading and, therefore, diminished the power of Joyce’s writing. The organization of the book seems to be haphazard with ideas coming at the reader from every direction. If any transitions are present, they are surely feeling very lonely.

Stylistic elements aside, this was a fabulous book filled with information on a movement that has, for the most part, remained outside the mainstream West’s awareness. I highly recommend it for all readers interested in religion and what is happening under the surface in Christian extremism.

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