They Still Break Girls, Don’t They: A Reflection on THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY for #FSYALit
I have in my mind an ongoing list of YA books that everyone should read if they care about girls. And since everyone should care about girls, that means that everyone should read them. The list includes books like Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt and Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu. And now that list includes The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes.
But first, a preface. To be honest, it is very hard to be a feminist and a Christian in a majority of the various churches in the world today. Yes, even in the year 2015. Some are easier than others. But I have sat in many a church where a pastor has stood at the pulpit and explained to me how the Gospel makes it very clear what role I am to play in this world and it is most often that lesser than a man. It involves things like my not being able to teach, my needing to submit, etc. And while working on my Youth Ministry degree from a conservative Christian college we were once even told by a professor how even if a man beats you to a blood pulp you are not permitted to divorce him but that you must take it. It’s hard being a part of a faith that wants to suggest that you have little to no value and you should live in daily terror, that this could be a loving god’s will for his child.
Which brings me to The Sacred Lives of Minnow Bly. On the surface, it may seem like the story of Minnow Bly is so far outside the norm, but the truth is that it’s not that much of a stretch from a wide variety of things that our girls are taught in this life about themselves: that their worth is only determined by how they are viewed by the men in their lives, by their beauty. And it’s not really so far of a stretch to think that this is, in fact, the way that many people still want to think of girls – of women; This idea that they are less then, subservient to, and that they should of course submit themselves to the wise men in their lives to the point that they don’t need a real education and they have no real choice in who they marry. Many churches led by men want their women to be uneducated, silent, meek and cowering in fear. See also Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (reviewed tomorrow by Corey Ann Haydu)
But The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly isn’t just about Minnow. We meet a variety of girls who are in juvenile detention for a variety of crimes, some of whom I might argue shouldn’t be.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is about how we, as a society, break our girls. How sometimes, when girls fight back and try to defend themselves, they are punished. It’s about the lies we tell them, the pain it causes them, and the struggle to free themselves of those dangerous definitions and finding the courage to define yourself.
**Mild Spoilers Follow**
It’s also about our prison system. This title, along with The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (brilliant) and to some extent Uninvited by Sophie Jordan (fascinating) is one of the few titles that feature girls in juvenile detention. And it highlights how the prison system can push the people inside its walls further into a life of violence and crime in an effort to survive. It also highlights how sometimes what people need are mental health services as opposed to prison services.
But underneath it all is also the discussion of faith. Minnow Bly has lived since she was 5 in an extreme religious cult completely cut off from society. Her life changes dramatically when the prophet announces that he has been told by his version of god that he must marry Minnow Bly, not yet even 18, in part to break her of her wicked ways. Minnow, you see, asks a lot of questions. And in a world where complete subservience is key questions are undoubtedly a sign of wickedness.
And it should be mentioned, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is also a book about sexual violence. It’s a book where young girls – sometimes incredibly young as in barely or not quite a teenager – are forced to marry men whether they like it or not. And of course it is fully expected that they will perform their “wifely duties” without question or complaint. But lest we think this too is a stretch, I am reminded of the times when I have been preached at from the pulpit that a woman should never deny her husband’s need for sex under any circumstances, not when she is sick, not when her children is sick, and certainly not when she feels scared, insecure or unloved. In many ways the language of the church can be a thin veil hiding the idea that a wife doesn’t get to have consent because she can never, ever refuse. Keep in mind that it wasn’t that long ago that it was considered that a married woman couldn’t be raped by her husband. But Minnow Bly isn’t about marital consent, it’s about forced marriage and considering women property.
There is another thread of sexual violence that happens in the storyline of another girl we meet while in the juvenile detention center. What happens to her and how people react to what happened to her was one of the most haunting things I have read in a really long time. And the truth is, it haunts in part because we know it’s true. We still blame victims of sexual violence, we still put women in prison when in an act of self-defense they harm or kill those that attack them, and we still lock little girls in their rooms to “keep them safe” instead of punishing those that attack them.
Reading The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly was a visceral and emotional experience for me. I texted long, thoughtful and emotional responses to Ally Watkins while I was reading it. I texted long, thoughtful and emotional responses to Christa Desir when I was reading it. I got angry. I cried. I wanted to really talk about it with everyone. I still do. This book, for me, was personal. As a woman. As the mother to two little girls. As a woman who is a Christian that wants to be fully valued equally alongside male Christians. As a person who just wants us to value and respect all of our fellow human beings equally – this book really hit me in the feels. More importantly, it made me think and reflect.
Literature works well when it is both a fictional story that we read on the page and a story that reflects the truth of the world we live in. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly reflects many truths – truths about faith, about sexism, about brokenness, about hope.
Here’s an important truth about faith: at some point, we all have to decide what we believe for ourselves. Minnow Bly is forced to face this truth in truly horrific ways and as a person who has in no way been equipped and empowered to do that until the moment that she is. She is lost and alone and floundering, but in the end for the first time ever she gets to decide who she wants to be and what she wants to believe. It’s not an easy journey, but in the end this is the most important truth: everyone should get that opportunity to decide for themselves who they really are and what they really want to believe.
Obviously, I highly recommend this book. It’s not an easy read and it’s not a fun read, but it is a profoundly thoughtful and meaningful read. And if you care about girls, you should read it. And since everyone should care about girls, everyone should read it. And keep in mind it’s not just about girls, because the truths of Minnow Bly are universal truths.
Publisher’s Book Description:
“The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust.
And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too.
Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it’s clear that Minnow knows something—but she’s not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a hard-hitting and hopeful story about the dangers of blind faith—and the power of having faith in oneself.” (Publisher’s Book Description, Published in June 2015 by Dial/Penguin)
Next week I will be sharing a Take 5 list of the books I think everyone who cares about girls should read.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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