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Review: Jesus Land

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:

Other Reviews: CurledUp.com

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  • Becca July 31, 2008, 2:53 am

    I read this book last year and really liked it. I named it as one of my top 10 reads for last year. I had trouble with it in the beginning too, especially the molestation parts and the almost-rape scene. In the end I really liked it though. I can’t believe more people don’t speak out about the Escuela Caribe. It was a crazy thing to read about.

  • Kim July 31, 2008, 9:16 pm

    Becca: Yeah, the almost rape was one of the most painful parts for me to read, I think in part because Scheeres is so matter-of-fact describing it. I was really surprised to see that Escuela Caribe is still around, especially after there is so much testimony online and in other places that it’s terrible.