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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, September 12, 2004

A Darker Place by Laurie R. King. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. ISBN: 0-553-10711-9

This is the first of Laurie King's novels that is NOT a part of either her modern Kate Martinelli mysteries, or the more historical Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes tales. And it's definitely a barnburner of a tale. Once again, my reaction was "Wow!" This story has everything going for it. Of course, I realize that my tastes, colored as they are by my own particular background of religious fundamentalism, may not be shared by others. Nevertheless.

The improbable heroine is a religion/theology professor specializing in cults and religious separatist groups, who some years before, lost her husband and 6-year old daughter to a religious cult suicide pact, from which she herself had narrowly escaped. Living with the guilt from the fact that her escape may very likely have helped trigger the fatal turn of events inside the community, she has since acted on an occasional and somewhat unwilling basis as an agent for the FBI's Cult Response Team, infiltrating groups which are suspected of having the potential for disastrous outcomes.

We join her just as she is recruited into this role yet once again, this time VERY unwillingly, but still feeling an obligation and a need to expatiate her own failures in this area. What follows is both fascinating and nerve-wracking, as she joins this very unusual religious group, and falls inextricably in love with some of its children.

Chapter headings include excerpts from the professor's writings and lectures, including several given to law enforcement groups. The bloody events of Waco and the Branch Davidians are obviously much in mind, even when they aren't explicitly mentioned. Here is a searing example:
 

". . . leads to the macho confrontational approach to resolving a standoff—what I think of as the 'create a crisis' or 'look you little bastards, you can't mess with me' point of view. There is no denying the appeal of having a clear goal and definite action, following in the footsteps of the Israelis at Entebbe and performing a deft and forceful coup, rescuing the hostages and crushing the hostage takers

However, frustrating as it may be to men hedged around by boredom, testosterone, and the pressures of media and their own higher ranks to DO SOMETHING, the coup de guerre does not work when there is no one to rescue, and one must always bear in mind that in a strong religious community, whether one calls it a cult or a sect or just a group of believers, there are no hostages; I repeat, there are no hostages wanting rescue. Typically the men, women and children of the community love and believe in what they are doing, and will die—willingly, freely die—before submitting to the perceived enemy, the hands of Babylon, the government representatives."

These words ring true, even though they are from a fictional character, as do the following words from a letter to the FBI Cult Response Team, also from our heroine:
 
"It is absolutely essential that we develop a mechanism for communicating with these so-called cultists, a means of understanding their world-views, comprehending their symbolic language, and establishing a common tongue. In a situation involving a difficult, possibly hostile community, the primary act needs to be the establishment of a groundwork for communication between the governmental agencies involved and the religious community, and particularly the leader or leaders. The vocabulary and structure of apocalypticism may at first hearing seem irrational, even mad; however, if one regards it less as a symptom of delusional psychopathology and more as a complex language to be learned, a long step may be made on the road to communication, and an equally large step made back from the inevitability of confrontation. Previous experience has shown that if we can get the religious dynamics of the community under investigation down pat, when the time comes for intervention, armed or not, at least the two sides are able to speak a common language."
Would that the government forces at Waco had had someone to give them this kind of advice. And would that the Seventh-day Adventist church had not been so busy desperately denying any connection with the Branch Davidians (despite the group's being an SDA offshoot, with an admittedly hostile relationship to the Seventh-day Adventist church going back decades) that they could have supplied experts to assist in this communication process. If people had been more interested in talking, and less in shooting, perhaps a monumental tragedy could have been averted.

My only complaint about the book involves the violent and dramatic ending. Despite the entire book having been narrated directly, we only get to hear about the crucial ending events second hand. This definitely weakens the effect, and leaves you hanging just a bit and a little dissatisfied with the author at the end.

This book is a classic example of fictional writing that not only makes an important statement about events of the real world, but does so in a highly readable, very entertaining and yet thought-provoking manner, with the very highest integrity. Highly recommended, especially for anyone with an interest in religious extremist groups and the government's reaction to them in our own time, but also to anyone who simply enjoys a good story, with believable and sympathetic characters, told in a truly page-turning style.

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