Post Mills, Vt.

It’s a busy time of year, what with the plunge into the holiday season. But it’s never too hectic to find time for a good book or two. So, back off the frenetic pace, if only to stay this side of sanity. Read these two stunning works: a novel and a memoir, that share a disturbing theme.

“The Rapture of Canaan” by Sheri Reynolds (Berkley Books 1995) is told by a young girl in an isolated Southern community. Her family is dominated by the towering, frightening figure of her Grandfather Herman, a self-made preacher of a congregation of his own creation, the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind. Under Herman’s punishing rule, nearly everything is forbidden, but temptation, as teen-age protagonist Ninah comes to learn, lurks everywhere.

Determined not to sin, her determination eventually crumbles when she confronts temptation in the form of her prayer partner, charming and handsome James. In a conflation of her own pain (she physically punishes herself) and Jesus’ pain on the cross, Ninah is caught up in her community’s hypocritical standards of behavior, malleable definitions of sin and shockingly harsh consequences. Along the way, Ninah begins to realize that God’s ways don’t necessarily conform to her grandfather’s conduct and rules.

Told with uncommon insight into Ninah’s teen-age psyche, the story weaves the wrath of Grandfather Herman and the perceived wrath of God into a compelling saga that, in the end, might not be entirely satisfying, but was sufficiently provoking that I read it twice.

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Educated” by Tara Westover (Random House 2018) is the author’s first book. I hope it’s not her last.

A memoir, Westover tells a story in fascinating detail of her memories of growing up uneducated in a Mormon family in rural Idaho where her father cobbled together his own personal Mormon doctrine and practices that have little resemblance to the current mainline faith. In an author’s note, Westover insists the story is not about Mormonism or other “form of religious belief.” Nonetheless, it is difficult for an objective reader to separate her father’s conception (or misconception) of Mormonism from the astounding violence, endemic abuse and other dysfunctions in her family, and, as she candidly concedes, in herself.

The memoir is the story of Westover’s on-again-off-again decisions to find herself, to define herself, and finally to walk away from a tangled thicket of familial love, betrayal, and mind control as practiced by her father and enabled by her mother and siblings. It is a riveting account of the struggle of her reinvention and, because of education, her emergence from a toxic environment that has every characteristic of a cult, although the author never uses the word to describe her family.

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Westover does not demonize; she seeks to understand. But often she finds herself understanding the demons, even her own. She writes about her family and herself with mesmerizing clarity, grace and candor that will resonate with families everywhere.

Both books plumb similar family themes. One is excellent fiction, the other is truth so improbable it reads like fiction. I highly recommend both, one after the other. Good holiday season reading. Good gifts, too.