Rating: 4.5 out of 5
* I received an advanced copy of this novel from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. *
Something is drawing seventeen-year-old Jesse Bryce toward the community of Pagans who live in “the village,” just outside his rural Oklahoma town. Maybe it’s that he has a crush on Griffin Holyoke, a tall, dark-haired boy with a tree tattooed all up his back. Or maybe it’s that the Pagans accept Jesse for who he is, unlike his family—or his church, where he hears that being gay is a sin.
After a man from the village is murdered while trying to prevent an assault on a girl from the town, Jesse’s confusion at the town’s unsympathetic reaction inspires him to set a mission for himself: to build a bridge of acceptance between the town and the village.
As Jesse defies his parents and continues to visit the village, he witnesses mysterious rituals that haunt him with their beauty and intensity. And he falls in love with one enigmatic, mercurial Pagan who opens his eyes to a whole new world.
This book was honestly stunning! It’s a coming of age story set in a conservative small town, and it deals with some pretty heavy issues. It’s not just a coming out story, it’s also a story about what it means to belong, and about opening your heart to those around you. Jesse was a fantastic protagonist, and his story was inspiring and beautiful to follow.
There are a lot of topics here that I really loved, and all of them were handled extremely well.
Jesse is taking small steps in his quest to be open about who he is. He comes out to his best friend, and then, afraid of their reaction, to his Christian family.
“Mom, this is real. I’m real. I need you to understand.” (Kindle Loc. 226)
It’s the scenario that so many LGBT+ youths face, and Jesse’s family reacts as expected. But Jesse keeps pushing, keeps trying to educate and enlighten, until slowly his family starts to understand that this is a fundamental part of who he is.
Even before he comes out, Jesse is bullied in school. Once rumors start to fly about his sexuality, things get even worse. I think seeing bullying in a YA novel is extremely important, especially a book that deals with coming out. And it’s not just Jesse who gets bullied; the kids from the pagan village are also taunted and hit by their Christian peers.
I’m not sure I’d recommend Jesse’s particular brand of fighting back, but it was brilliant to read nonetheless!
Back in school after a trip to the hardware store, I used a graffiti remover to rub and scrape away the red FAGGOT. Then I picked up the can of purple spray paint I’d bought and, at a rakish slant, in big, bold, gorgeous letters, I wrote: GAY. (1328)
I think all people are drawn to those who accept them, and Jesse is no different. When he learns that the pagan community doesn’t care if he’s gay, and even embraces it, he feels like he’s finally found a place to belong.
“I can’t be myself at home. They hate who I am. And they make me ashamed of it.” (2124)
But even more, I like that the people in the village are encouraging of Jesse to be honest and open with their family. Instead of taking him in, they show him that the most important acceptance is that of his family and his own community.
When I first read the summary, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a young man guiding his Christian family and town into accepting not only his own homosexuality, but also the pagan community that lives nearby. I had worries, I’ll admit; books dealing with religious themes often come off as either “too dismissive” or “too preachy”. But Robin did an excellent job of writing both communities in a way that was educational and neutral, and also realistic from the various characters’ POVs.
One side of his mouth curled up in a half-smile. “You Christians. You get upset over the silliest things.” (649)
But my favorite part of the novel is Jesse’s courage.
“Aren’t you? I think you are. Griffin says you create your own recipes. You wander into the woods late at night, alone. You defy the conventional wisdom of your family and friends to come into this den of heathens so you can explore something that calls to you, something they aren’t likely to understand.” (2603)
He doesn’t even realize it, but he’s the bravest person in both the town and the village. He’s the one who steps forward and refuses to let the bullying and the hatred continue. Yes, he’s still human, and he still gets upset and downtrodden, but that doesn’t stop him from pushing forward with what he believes is right!
While a bit on the long side (at 327 pages), I still really enjoyed every bit of this novel. It’s slower paced, but that’s essential in a story like this, where it’s the emotions that are important, not the actions.
There’s also a really lovely romance here, but I didn’t want to spoil too much about that because it was a surprise and a treat!