cover image Strange Children

Strange Children

Sadie Hoagland. Red Hen, $17.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-59709-116-9

Hoagland’s lyrical but convoluted debut novel (after the collection American Grief in Four Stages) follows the children of Redfield, a polygamist cult living in a remote Southwest commune. After 16-year-old Jeremiah and 12-year-old Emma are caught having sex, Jeremy’s father, Josiah, drives him toward the nearest town, Pine Mesa, and abandons him on the side of the highway, then takes Emma as a wife. Redfield’s “Prophet” tells the group Jeremiah died in the desert for his sin with Emma, but when Emma’s brother, Levi, returns from Pine Mesa with news Jeremiah is alive, the children and adults alike begin to question the Prophet’s leadership. Between chapters are interstitial passages narrated by the “ghost of the dead girl,” who is determined to protect Emma (“Across our worlds, like speaking through wool, I tried to tell her what [the Prophet had] done to me”), and the story ramps up when federal agents appear to investigate probable child sex abuse. At times, the cast feels unwieldy, with too many characters’ points of view shoehorned in, but Hoagland’s talent lies in her ability to show how they’ve been brainwashed in a system designed to control them and where obedience is peddled as transcendence. In the end, once the narrative threads finally tighten, Hoagland’s story satisfies. (May)