In brief: In the late 1960s, newlyweds Lenny and Evelyn move to Evergreen Valley so Lenny can do service as a conscientious objector. There, they meet Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple and their lives change beyond their dreams…
The good: Absolutely mesmerising. I didn’t want this to end.
The not-so-good: The end because the book was over and I knew what was going to happen…
Why I chose it: Gorgeous cover, interesting topic…thanks to Scribe for the copy.
Setting: America and Guyana
Rating: 10 out of 10
Beautiful Revolutionary has to be one of my most fascinating and mesmerising reads for 2018. It’s the kind of book that you don’t want to end and that gives you a serious book hangover. This story is meticulously researched and gets into your heart and mind and remains there for quite some time.
The story is about the Peoples Temple, a cult that started in California in the late 1960s. That is real, but the people who surround the leader Jim Jones are fictional. I purposefully hadn’t read too much about the group before I started reading the book because I really wanted to explore what happened through the book. (All I knew was that it was likely to end badly). Laura Elizabeth Woollett takes the reader on a journey from the early days to the fateful, wild last days of the group. It starts off with following Evelyn and Lenny Lynden, a young couple moving to Evergreen Valley as Lenny works in a psychiatric hospital as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. From the start, they are an odd pair. Lenny is dreamy, less motivated and overly fond of cannabis. Evelyn is driven, bored and looking to fill the void that marriage has failed to do. But it’s Evelyn that falls under the spell of Jim Jones and his church. Lenny is taken along for the ride, malleable and apathetic to whatever Jim and the people want him to do. Evelyn rises in the group after she catches Jim’s eye but she’s not popular amongst the other members – cold, devoid of emotion and somewhat calculating. Plus, she’s kind of displaced Jim’s wife Rosaline, who knows the secrets of the chicken gizzards (disguised as cancer, cured by Jim) plus much, much more.
The focus drifts away from Lenny and Evelyn, although they remain pivotal parts of the plot. One of the sections of the book is dedicated to a group of young members, who flee the Temple’s teachings, punishments and general oddness by escaping cross-country. This is the first sign of dissent amongst the group but not the first that things are not well within the leadership. As the Temple grows in numbers and wealth, there are more people beginning to speak out against them. The majority of the members move to Guyana in the hope of living a socialist, self-sufficient life. Will Russia come to their aid when the US government steps in after concerns from a number of relatives?
Beautiful Revolutionary is brilliantly written. It approaches a number of topics such as race and sexuality with sensitivity, yet is reflective of the period and of the teachings of the Temple. Some parts are uncomfortable to read but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the page. In the lead up to the end, I was hoping desperately that something would happen to save my favourite characters (such as Evelyn’s sister Sally-Ann) and that someone would stand up, see things clearly…it felt like a race against time. I kind of hope that Sally-Ann was smart enough to see through the finale for what it was but I don’t like my chances. Woollett’s exploration of how Temple members (and targets) were groomed to believe in the Temple and the power of Jones was another car crash moment – you can’t help but appreciate the skill taken to deceive but you want people to be smart enough to see through it. It was all so powerful, so masterful. It’s like Woollett has woven a spell over her readers – I certainly won’t be missing what she writes next. She’s a master of character and atmosphere.