Thursday, October 15, 2015

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Devoted is a young adult novel that explores the lifestyle of a conservative Protestant sect, known as Quiverfull, and one teenager's repudiation of her life in the group. The Quiverfull movement began in the United States and observes a number of very conservative tenets. One of its main beliefs stems from Psalm 127

 "Lo, Children are a heritage of the Lord:
and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hands of a mighty
So are children of the youth
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them."

Couples who are part of Quiverfull trust in the Lord to determine their family size, leading to very large families by modern standards. Often the father, who is considered the absolute head of the household, either works from home or in a family business. The women dress conservatively - pants and male clothing is shunned while girls and women wear longer dresses and tops that have a high neckline. Perhaps the best known family who adheres to the Quiverfull tenets are the Duggars of 19 And Counting Fame, although they claim not to belong to the movement.

In Devoted, seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker belongs to a family of ten children that includes Faith who is married to Paul, older brothers Matthew, Andrew and David, thirteen-year-old Ruth, four-year-old Sarah, twins Jeremiah and Gabriel and two-year-old Isaac. Devoted to her faith and her family, Rachel is no longer being homeschooled but instead helps her mother teach her younger siblings and maintain the household.

At Calvary Christian Church in Clayton, Texas, Rachel along with her family and the rest of the Calvary congregation watch as nineteen-year-old James Fulton asks for forgiveness. He has returned from Journey of Faith, a camp where members who have committed serious sins are sent to be "rehabilitated". At dinner with her family, Faith's husband, Paul, mentions Lauren Sullivan who left her family and moved to the city a few years ago. Paul states that she has been seen at the drugstore and that she lives in an apartment complex near the animal hospital. Unlike James Fulton, Lauren Sullivan did not go to Journey of Faith - she left before she could be sent there. After dinner that night, Rachel's father mentions Lauren and warns his family that they must "avoid speaking with or interacting with those who have left the flock." Rachel is mindful that she is the same age Lauren was when she left Calvary and feels this is a warning to her from her father.That night while working on the computer for her father's business, Rachel types in "Lauren Sullivan Clayton Texas" but does not finish the search.

Rachel's mother who is pregnant suffers a miscarriage the next morning and is understandably devastated. Faith who comes to help out, tells Rachel that their mother suffered another miscarriage once before and that she was bedridden for a month due to serious depression. Their father refused psychiatric help for her. As the weeks pass by and Rachel's mother remains bedridden, the household chores and childcare fall to Rachel.

Rachel's biggest obstacle to completing her household duties is her obsession with her favourite novel, A Wrinkle in Time. Her father finds the book and questions how it came into her possession. Rachel explains that she purchased the novel while she was with her mother and that the author, Madeleine L'Engle was a Christian. Her father believes the book is ungodly and that the author is like many who pose as Christians but who do not follow the Lord. He forces her to burn the book.

Days later Rachel searches for Lauren Sullivan online but before she has a chance to read much, Ruth interrupts her. Her father brings in Faith to help her keep the house running. However Faith immediately pulls Rachel aside and admonishes her for wearing a top that shows the outline of her bra. This both humiliates and angers Rachel. Needing her mother, Rachel struggles to understand why her mother felt compelled to have another child when she already has ten "babies' who need her.

That night Rachel researches Lauren Sullivan and learns that she is working at Clayton Animal Hospital as a veterinarian technician, that she's vegan, has tattoos and that she has two cats. The next morning Rachel's mother attempts to be a part of the household by coming to breakfast in an effort to show that she's well enough for Rachel and Ruth to attend the girls fellowship about modesty. This event goes badly for Rachel when she is completely humiliated by Faith who asks her to share their discussion about her immodest dress and the vigilance required to achieve biblical femininity. Rachel begins to feel more and more confused about how she is living and what she actually believes.

Rachel's mother begins to heal when she learns that Faith and Paul are expecting a child. Faith tells Rachel that "our Lord is preparing your future husband. And He is preparing you to be his future wife and mother of his children." This only panics Rachel as she is not sure if she wants marriage and a large family for her future. That night Rachel reads Lauren's online account about her escape from Calvary. Despite the threat of a terrible punishment should she be caught, Rachel emails Lauren telling her that she cares about what has happened to her. Lauren responds quickly, warning Rachel to set up a private email, thanking her and telling her if she needs her to let her know.

Soon Rachel and Lauren are emailing one another. Lauren sends Rachel a poem by Mary Oliver which ends with the lines, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" For the first time in her life, Rachel asks herself what she wants in her life because that answer has always been given to her - to be a godly wife to my future husband and raise my children in the service of the Lord."

After Wednesday night fellowship, Rachel is surprised to find herself singled out by Pastor Garrett and her father for a special blessing. The next evening Rachel learns that her father has reset the password on the computer so that she is unable to log on. Desperate to contact Lauren, Rachel offers to take the humidifier over to Faith's home for little Caleb who is sick. However, this errand becomes the chance for Rachel to visit the Clayton Animal Hospital to meet Lauren. The following Saturday, Rachel is confronted by her parents who tell her they know she visited the Clayton Animal Hospital unchaperoned. Concerned about her computer usage, Rachel's father had the computer inspected and her emails to Lauren discovered. Her parents have decided to send her to the Journey of Faith camp. Pastor Garrett and his wife are prepared to drive Rachel directly to the camp. Panicked and in shock, Rachel manages to call Lauren while upstairs packing a bag. Lauren tells her she will come and get her and when she arrives, Rachel quickly slips out the door. Will Rachel ever be able to return to her family, to see her younger sister Ruth whom she loves so much?


Mathieu states that she did considerable research into the Quiverfull movement prior to writing her novel. Her sources include Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement and Vyckie Garrison's "No Longer Quivering" blog. She also spoke with many women who have left the movement as well as those who continue to live the Quiverfull lifestyle.

Mathieu is able to successfully weave much of the Quiverfull lifestyle into Rachel's narrative: early marriage, large families, extremely modest dress required of women so as to prevent boys and men experiencing carnal temptation, the chaperoning of young women in the community, homeschooling with a focus on women learning household duties and childcare, frequent worship and involvement in the church, and strict obedience to the father who is seen as the head of the household and who makes all decisions concerning minors. As a seventeen-year-old on the verge of adulthood, Rachel is approaching the time when she will be expected to live out the beliefs of the Quiverfull movement, which for her will mean marriage and a large family. But Rachel struggles to accept these beliefs and practices because they feel contradictory. It is this struggle that becomes the focus of Rachel's journey out of the Quiverfull movement.

At first Rachel feels she is a failure because she does not measure up to the ideals of femininity described by the Quiverfull movement. Mathieu sets up Rachel's older sister Faith as an example of a young woman who perfectly embodies the godly woman defined by Quiverfull. From the beginning Faith is portrayed as a supermom and a perfect wife. "It's early May in Texas and five hundred billion degrees, but somehow Faith isn't sweating, and her lavender blouse and knee-length denim skirt don't have a spot of baby puke on them."  Inspired by James's testimony, Faith who is described as "always been good at helping us think of others." enthusiastically suggests that they start a fellowship group "about modest dress. About helping the boys and the young men in their struggle to remain spiritually pure..."

Rachel is aware that how she feels and what she thinks is at odds with the Quiverfull definition of godly femininity. She is dismayed at her mother's pregnancy with baby eleven. Rachel has unkind thoughts about Faith's husband Paul who quotes scripture constantly, like he's a pastor.  Rachel feels guilty for reading A Wrinkle In Time because her "focus really should be on the little ones and learning how to be a wife and mother, a helpmeet with a cheerful countenance."

When her mother miscarries, Rachel's response is much different than Faith's which involves both prayer and acceptance of what has happened. Rachel recognizes "I haven't prayed for my mother or my unborn little baby brother or sister all day long, and the realization fills me with guilt...I hadn't even stopped to call out to God like Ruth did when Mom first yelled for us..." When Faith leaves, Rachel wants her to stay but doesn't say so. "Faith doesn't doubt God's will. Faith is a living embodiment of her name. Steadfast and resolute, unlike me who flounders." 

At church, Rachel notices that everyone weeps for baby Joshua but there is little concern for her mother. Her simple prayer of "Lord, let my mother be all right" seems inadequate compared to "something Faith or Pastor Garrett might say."  Rachel wants people to grieve for Joshua. "But how I wish people wouldn't smile right now....I wish my family could have a few minutes to feel sad about it, at least. Would that have been too selfish?"  Her family's focus on hiding their grief for the loss of Joshua feels fake and leaves her once again feeling inadequate. "Faith smiles, the tears she cried during the service all gone now. Her trust in the Lord must be so strong. She glides easily from correct emotion to correct emotion, where I always have the wrong ones."

When her father discovers she's been reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and orders her to destroy it, Rachel silently questions his actions. "But there's another, deeper part of me that wants to jump up and cry out. To tell Dad that in the book, Mrs. Who quotes Scripture...And that Meg saves her brother because she loves him and light wins over darkness and isn't that something? Doesn't love of family count as good? As godly? And doesn't Proverbs say that the heart of the righteous studieth how to answer. Doesn't that mean that pondering, wondering, questioning is all right? That books that make us think should be allowed?" But at this point, Rachel is unable to question her father because "We must honor and obey our father at all times."

The increasing disconnect between her inner beliefs and her outward life, lead Rachel to begin questioning her beliefs, her future and to investigate the circumstances behind Lauren Sullivan's leaving her family.

Rachel questions why her mother wanted to have so many children to care for day after day - a thought that fills her with anxiety and causes her to give "my forearm a firm smack to snap myself out of it." She struggles to envision her life as a married woman with many children. It will mean giving up all other choices for her life. When Faith announces her second pregnancy and refers to this as Rachel's future, Rachel panics and has to leave the dinner table. She prays, "Please Father God, don't find my future husband, not now. Please, Father God, don't give me so many babies I can't find a moment's peace to read or think or watch the sunset." When she returns, Rachel notes "I'm not the only one in my family good at faking."

Even the thought of her life being like her mother's or Faith's causes her intense anxiety. "My mind seizes on an image of myself pregnant, my stomach swollen tight, and my chest contracts and I try to find my breath. I think of the years stretched out before me, and know I could have a dozen children, maybe more. The thought of it, of ending up like my mother, crying alone in a bed while her other children wait for her, makes me want to scream, not sing God's praises."

Learning the circumstances surrounding Lauren's flight from Quiverfull causes Rachel to question how her community has treated Lauren. "And this Lauren with the dyed hair and the strange tattoos seems different, even frightening, but isn't the Lauren of my childhood still this Lauren? and isn't this Lauren still someone we should love? Someone who should know we haven't forgotten her?"

The loss of her computer privileges, prompts Rachel to confront her father for the first time. However, instead of listening to her, he admonishes her for questioning his authority. She wonders why God would give her a mind that is inquisitive and that questions the world around her. The loss of the computer soon leaves Rachel feeling stifled. "I miss the ease of being able to quickly look things up that aren't even related to her at all. Like why do lunar eclipses happen and how do airplanes actually work and where is Mount Everest located?"

When Rachel does visit Lauren at the vet clinic, Lauren reminds her "You can make your own choices in this life. I promise you. You really can." At this time however, Rachel does not yet believe she has the power to make her own choices. "I can't make any choices. I can't even choose what to wear or what to read. I don't have a choice in the world, and I"m not like Lauren. I can't just leave home like she did."

But when she's threatened with being sent to Journey of Faith camp, Rachel does make her first real choice - to leave home. Diane Treat who provides Rachel with her first ever job, reiterates what Lauren told her. "My life was for me just like our life is for you, and you've got to live it like you want to, and that's why God gave it to you. Now you may look like you wouldn't bite a biscuit, but I know a girl who goes after what she wants. And you're that kind of girl, I think."

Rachel proves this later on, first when she decides to enroll in the Clayton Independent School when she turns eighteen and secondly when she and Lauren disagree over religion. Diane Treat invites Rachel to attend Peace Lutheran church with her family. Lauren attempts to convince Rachel that religion brainwashes people. Rachel tells Lauren, "I'm pretty sure I can...make my own decisions about what to think about this." Rachel considers that Lauren is doing exactly what her father was doing - trying to "protect" her from life and telling her how to live her life. But Rachel proves she is strong enough to make her own decisions about her life.

Rachel's journey begins as a confused seventeen-year-old who is not allowed to make decisions about how to dress or what to read to a young eighteen-year-old woman who makes her own decisions about jobs and her education. Unlike Lauren who has decided religion is not for her, Rachel still believes in God and still prays - but does so in her own way. That choice is hers and she doesn't allow herself to be protected or bullied. She feels God is saying to her, "What is it you plan to do, Rachel Walker, with this one life I've given you?"

One issue Mathieu takes time to deal with is that of shaming women for how they dress and how the sole responsibility for men's behaviour lies with women. In the girl's fellowship about modesty, Mrs. Garrett states, "We must remember that it is up to us to help men resist temptation,...We want our clothing to reveal a humble heart that loves the Lord and nothing more." However, Rachel finds the responsibility to protect men from lust overwhelming. "So much of a man's godly path is dependent on me and what I choose to wear, and the responsibility terrifies me sometimes."

Later on Rachel questions Lauren as to whether she feels guilt over tempting men when she wears a bathing suit. Lauren explains to her that men and women are naturally supposed to feel attracted to one another. That this is not a "temptation" but the way things work between men and women.
"The thing is, Rachel, that humans get attracted to each other," Lauren's voice continues as I try to pay attention to her words. "Our bodies attract each other. And girls can get attracted to guys, too...That's how it works, you know. That's why all of us are here...And the way you and I were raised, we were just handed these totally warped ideas about sex and our bodies, you know? Like girls can't feel attracted to guys and guys are just animals who can't control themselves, so we have to rein them in by wearing pillowcases on our heads, practically. It's body shame and guilt and all of that, and it pisses me off just thinking about it."

Devoted has an appealing protagonist in Rachel Walker and is a powerful expose of the Quiverfull movement. Strong, intelligent, resourceful, and willing to sacrifice her beloved family for the chance to live life on her own terms, makes Rachel a believable character. Young readers will identify with her struggle to forge her own identity, to discover her own beliefs about the world around her, and to define her own relationship with God.

Book Details:

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieum
New York: Roaring Brook Press     2015
328 pp.

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