Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Little, Brown and Company; 320 pages; $25.99).
A raging inferno destroys the compound of a fundamentalist polygamous cult and directs the leader’s first wife, Aramanth, to flee with her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow. One is a reluctant passenger, while the other watches “for the end of the world.” In the backseat of the car, their hands “are hot and close together” with “a strip of white fabric” looped “between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist.” Aramanth is “taking them from their home and all they know, and they have no idea how they will ever get her to turn around and take them back.”
Peggy Riley’s absorbing and gripping debut, Amity & Sorrow, may be fictional, but the plot reads like something straight from the headlines. Riley mixes the personal with the political and the individual with the communal in her unflinching and thereby stunning portrayal of a family escaping a deranged cult leader and father and his dangerous religion.
“All the world prepares for the end of time,” “Father” preached to his flock of wives and children on December 31, 1999. “You can feel it, like a sickness,” he cried and lamented that the world was “coming apart at the seams.” Though the world did not end on that date, Father was not upset but secure in the knowledge that the end was closing in.
Riley ably and chillingly illuminates the appeal of a utopian society like the one Father attempted and failed to create. In riveting detail, the author describes how wife after wife, fifty in all, came to the compound and married Father. Some worried about terrorism; others sought something larger than themselves. A few wanted to start new lives. None intrigued more, though, than Riley’s “thirty-ninth wife, the daughter of Waco,” who left the Branch Davidians after the Waco firestorm only to seek solace in the arms of a new prophet. These transfixing passages turn the cult’s followers into real people with hopes, dreams, and everything to lose.
A deep sense of loss permeates Amity & Sorrow. Out of all Riley’s main characters, it is Sorrow who feels the most unmoored as she is desperate to return to the compound. She enjoyed her position as the cult’s oracle, but now her status is lost to her forever. Her greatest wish, to be her father’s fifty-first wife, will never come true. Still, Sorrow holds fast to her father’s teachings, no matter how unrealistic they seem or how ignorant they make her appear.
In contrast to her sister, and in accordance with her name, Amity does her best to promote harmony, whether in the compound or on the run. On the farm where the family enjoys a brief respite, Amity makes friends with Dust, a teenage farmhand, and finds comfort in the pages of The Grapes of Wrath. Despite her efforts to fit it, Amity seeks a sign from God and believes her hands can heal a television, “turning snow into pictures,” by moving the rabbit ears.
Aramanth does not miss what you might expect. Instead of longing for her husband, Aramanth yearns for the companionship of her sister wives, women she grew to love. She is increasingly drawn to Bradley, a farmer, who is nothing like her husband. The longer Aramanth spends away from the compound, the clearer things seem to her about Father and about her daughters.
Amity & Sorrow is filled with vivid and intoxicating passages of prose, especially when Riley writes about spinning. “…Women were
spinning like hoops, like wheels. Women spun in solo orbits, lost in chanting, lost in prayer, then they spun together in a wide circle that swung around the room, around the altar.” When they “spun, they could forget patrol cars, forget that they were being watched and judged.” When the women spun, “they only thought of how the heavens turned above them and how God cupped them all in His wide, white hand.” The bereavement Amity feels is palpable and powerful to the reader when she begins menstruating and no one spins her as they did Sorrow.
I was glued to Riley’s compelling tale. The opening, when two sisters are tied together at the wrist, literally forces you to keep reading. You feel tethered to the sisters yourself, already, even on the first page. Riley seizes your attention and never lets go in her riveting and timely debut. Amity & Sorrow is hotter than brimstone and will leave you reeling.