Ever since she was a little girl, Lyla Hamilton has lived in the Community. She and her parents do their best to obey the teachings of Pioneer, their leader. Pioneer has drilled into them that the world is going to end very soon, but that everyone who follows him will be saved from the destruction. Yet when a visit from the outside world triggers a crisis of faith in Lyla, she begins to realize that the real danger, to herself and to everyone she loves, has been inside the Community all along.
"Gated" by Amy Christine Parker offers a well-researched and deeply sobering look at life inside a religious cult. As Lyla recounts how she and her family came to be involved in Pioneer's Community, it's all too easy to understand the mindset that allowed them to be sucked in.
Lyla's sister was kidnapped right around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the national tragedy coming right on top of the family tragedy was too much for Lyla's parents. They could no longer believe that any good existed in the world, which made them easy targets when a kindly, charismatic figure showed up on their doorstep with an offer of escape and utopia.
Lyla's first-person account of her upbringing, and of the gradual opening of her eyes to the truth, allows us a realistic glimpse inside the mind of someone who's been manipulated into believing a lie. Lyla and her friends try to follow the Community's many rules, even while they chafe under them. They're used to the idea that their future spouses have already been chosen for them; that someone else is in control of everything they read, watch, learn, eat, and talk about; that they all must learn to shoot to kill in order to defend the group; and that one day they'll all have to live in an underground bunker.
It feels like a major Young Adult cliche that Lyla's epiphany is prompted by a cute boy, Cody, who visits the Community with his father, the local sheriff. Still, whatever its cause, that epiphany is also realistic, and poignant to read about. As Lyla manages to find more opportunities to talk with Cody and others, her belief that one man can have all the answers, and that evil can be sealed off outside her own small community, is shattered. But with the new freedom come fear, doubt, and pain. Not only is she being forced to re-evaluate her entire life, but her own family and friends are still trapped -- and Pioneer's words and behavior are becoming increasingly erratic.
"Gated" is an absorbing read that builds to an action-packed climax. Lyla's story should help many young readers think about how we form our belief systems and to whom we should listen, which makes it ideal to read and discuss as a family.
It's clear from Lyla's observations that hers is a religion well outside the mainstream, and far removed from Christianity. Lyla and her friends have been told stories from the Bible, mainly as cautionary tales, but they refer to "Noah's god" as some far-off deity who has nothing to do with them. Their faith is in "the Brethren," a group of mysterious otherworldly beings who Pioneer promises are going to save them from the coming apocalypse.
It makes a difference to the story, I believe, that author Amy Christine Parker is a believer in God herself (she offers Him "thanks and praise" in the Acknowledgments). Her book doesn't suggest that religion itself is bad -- only the kind of religion that manipulates and controls.
As for content issues, there are plenty of mentions of Lyla and Cody's feelings for each other, but there's little that's openly sexual. Lyla's friend Marie begs Lyla to buy her romance novels and magazines during a shopping trip, and Cody helps her to find some and jokes with her about them. There's no profanity, but there is physical abuse (when Pioneer punishes Lyla and her friends for an infraction of the rules). And the climax of the book is violent, as the tensions simmering within the Community erupt into open warfare. Perhaps most unsettling of all is Lyla's dawning realization that her parents have been believing a lie all these years, and that her mother in particular still can't let go of that lie.
But in general, for a mainstream YA release, the content is quite mild. The darkness that's here is not gratuitous, but rather the kind of darkness that makes one think seriously about crucial spiritual issues.
A sequel to "Gated," titled "Astray," is scheduled for release on August 26.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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