Initially, I wasn’t a big fan of Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. I think my initial dislike came from a disconnect between what I thought the book was going to be about and what the topic turned out to be. In the end though, I’m glad I stuck with it all the way through because Jesus Land is a powerful book that is surprisingly uplifting in the end.
I went into reading the memoir with some pretty specific expectations about the plot based on what the back cover states:
Julia and her adopted brother, David, are sixteen years old. Julia is white. David is black. It is the mid-1980s and their family has just moved to rural Indiana, a landscape of cottonwood trees, trailer parks, and an all-encompassing racism. At home are a distant mother — more involved with her church’s missionaries than her own children — and a violent father. In this riveting and heartrendering memoir Julia Scheeres takes us from the Midwest to a place beyond imagining: surrounded by natural beauty, the Escuela Caribe — a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic — is characterized by a disciplinary regime that extracts repentance from its students by any means necessary. Julia and David strive to make it through these ordeals, and their tale is relayed here with startling immediacy, extreme candor, and wry humor.
With that description, I figured the book would mostly be about Julia and David’s time in the Dominican Republic — a memoir topic that seemed unique and, if not exactly enjoyable, at least interesting to read about. Instead, the majority of the story takes place in Indiana, and focuses on their abusive family and even more abusive surroundings. The early chapters of the memoir cover topics like molestation, abusive relationships, and the harsh racism and terror only children can perpetrate against one another. The memoir is not easy to read, and not about topics I generally chose to read about. In that respect, I was ready to put the book away pretty early. I think what kept me going through the early parts of the book was Scheeres as a narrator. She is sympathetic, but also never looking for sympathy from the reader for her experiences.
I’m really glad I stuck with it, however, because the memoir gets better once Julia and David are sent to Escuela Caribe. Things aren’t really any easier for them, the story just gets to be less generic (although I think it sounds terrible to describe memoirs about child abuse and other harsh topics as “generic”). Julia and David have a special relationship that really comes to light once they have to face their reform school environment. The develop secret codes and plan their escape to Florida, all the while dealing with missionaries terrorizing children in the name of the Lord. Disturbing, but also fascinating. The conclusion of the book is both fitting and uplifting enough to make you glad you got all the way through. In many ways, it’s a testament to what people are able to get through given their own strength and the strength they can draw from the people they are closest to.
Links to Enjoy:
- “Vindicated: Religion put Julia Scheeres and her adopted brother through hell” — a 2006 interview by RealChangeNews.org with Julia Scheeres
- Julia Scheeres website, juliascheeres.com
- BookPage.com interview with Julia Scheeres
Other Reviews: CurledUp.com
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!