Review of "Jesus Land" written by Julia Scheeres
I almost didn’t read this book because of the title. I thought it was a religious book. My wife sometimes buys self help and inspirational books, and I thought that this book fell into that category. But I was in between books and saw this one on the kitchen counter. So I picked it up and read the front and back cover. Since all there was were blurbs from various reviews, I still didn’t have a good grasp of what the book was about. From the picture on the cover, I wrongfully assumed it had something to do with missionaries in some third world country. I’m glad I decided to give the book a try, despite my uneasiness of carrying it around lest someone think I was some religious fanatic.
Now that I have finished the book, I can see that it is an apt title. But I wonder how many people might have passed on the book because of that first impression? Jesus Land is about a dysfunctional family, racism, and religious zealotry. It’s also about the relationship between the author and her adopted brother, David, who happens to be black.
The family adopts two black children. They are adopted not so much because of a willingness to do good but because the overly religious mother thinks it’s the right thing to do, despite her own racist attitudes. The kids are exiled to the basement both physically and emotionally. The oldest, Jerome, is eventually booted out of the house and forced to fend for himself, but not before taking advantage of his white sister. The younger of the two, David, spends his time just trying to fit in — anywhere.
The parents are religious zealots. The father is a doctor who drives a Porshe. It’s obvious that he is doing well financially, but that wealth doesn’t seem to trickle down to the rest of the family, whom is forced to eat what the author describes as garbage soup for dinner. His only purpose seems to be in meting out punishment to the two black children. Here is how the author describes her father: "Our father, who heals the sick and dying by day, and causes injury at night." The mother is incapable of showing affection.
The heart of the book is the relationship between the author and her brother. Not only does she witness the racism that her brother is forced to endure throughout his life, but she experiences it first hand because of her family association. Eventually, they both end up at a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic. Much of the book takes place in this prison-like compound.
There are many passages dealing with sexual desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled. As a male reader I sometimes felt that I was listening in on conversations not meant for my ears. At the same time, I felt that I was given an inside look at the female psyche with regard to sex.
When David and his sister are banished to the Dominican Republic, they find themselves stripped of their freedom in more ways than one. They must endure punishment meted out by a staff that is given absolute power. The most unfortunate thing is that the school still exists. Here is how the author describes the effectiveness of such discipline "..making people suffer doesn’t make them more virtuous, it just makes them despise you."
The writing is sharp, poignant and honest. The author deserves the praise and awards that the book has received. First published in 2005, this book has bucked the trend of the short shelf life. I plan to add it to my best of 2007 list.
For more information, you can visit the author’s web site and blog at www.juliascheeres.com.