To imagine there are women living in the free world who are passed from the care of their fathers directly into the care of their husbands without a glimpse at the world beyond is astonishing. Knowing that it is happening in the United States every day is heartbreaking. With the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame suddenly in the news for all the wrong reasons, the religious movement they partake in, the Quiverfull movement, is in the spotlight for the first time, and the reality of being a woman in the movement is beyond anything I could ever understand until I read Jennifer Mathieu's compelling YA novel Devoted.
Devoted follows Rachel Walker, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who is being groomed to be a good helpmeet — a wife and mother, and nothing more. A normal day for Rachel consists of caring for her five younger siblings while her father and three older brothers work. Her older sister Faith has already left the family home and is married with a child and household of her own to tend to. Because all of the children are homeschooled, Rachel is teacher, sister and mother to her younger siblings, and with her mother suffering from postpartum depression, Rachel is more or less the head of the household at the start of the book. At least she is figuratively, because it is her father's word that is law.
In many ways, the descriptions of Rachel's day-to-day life could be pulled from any YA dystopian novel. Rachel has never been to a traditional school, she has no friends outside of her siblings and she has never been anywhere on her own. She is told she must never cut her hair, never dress "immodestly" lest she tempt men into sinning, never own too many unessential possessions and she should never, ever question the authority of her father or her pastor. In fact, she should question nothing, and therein lies Rachel's problem: She questions everything even when she is told her curiosity could lead to damnation.
Rachel is a refreshingly real female heroine. Throughout Devoted she is not fighting to save the world or falling in love; she is in a battle for her very right to live her life. As the reality of her future begins to sink in, Rachel begins to rebel in small but powerful ways. She reaches out to Lauren, a young woman who left the Quiverfull movement behind, and was disowned by her family for her choice. Lauren gives Rachel a way out by offering a simple, yet life-changing quote from the poet Mary Oliver. "Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
Anyone who is curious about the Quiverfull movement or is simply looking for a remarkable, grounded YA novel owes it to themselves to pick up Devoted. Rachel is a character who will immediately find a place inside your heart and settle in there for good. Her thirst for knowledge and personal strength in the face of heartbreaking realities will inspire, and her story is a reminder of all the ways women from all cultures and backgrounds still have to fight for the right to have a voice, to speak and to be heard.
Devoted is a triumph in every way, but what I found myself most impressed by is Mathieu's commitment to being fair to religion. This is not a story about the evils of Christianity. Throughout Devoted, faith and belief are treated with respect. Faith is what carries Rachel when she is struggling so hard to find her way. It is zealotry that comes under fire in Devoted, an adherence to a patriarchal world view in a movement that shuts women away from any influence deigned evil by the men in their lives.
The journey Rachel goes on will inspire fans of 19 Kids and Counting to think about what they are seeing on-screen. Devoted is a fictional account (albeit a studiously researched one), and it is more honest than the image of familial bliss peddled by TLC. This is the reality many women within the movement face, and through Rachel's eyes, the struggle to break free and the cost of doing so are rendered in vivid detail. Devoted is a book that will not easily be forgotten, nor should it be.
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