Jane Smiley Character Dips into Peoples Temple

(This article is adapted from Peoples Temple in Fiction, which appeared as a blog on Rebecca Moore’s webpage. Rebecca Moore is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She is currently Reviews Editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Co-Director of The Jonestown Institute. Her other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are African-American Women Find Voice in New Jonestown Novel and The Stigmatized Deaths In Jonestown: Finding A Locus For GriefHer complete collection of articles on this site appears here.)

I always open a Jane Smiley book with anticipation. A great storyteller, Smiley also creates wonderful characters. At the same time, I always approach a novel that includes Peoples Temple as part of its plotline with trepidation. How will they use it? Will they get it right?

early warningIn the case of Early Warning (New York: Knopf, 2015), Peoples Temple and Jonestown are encompassed in Smiley’s sweep through twentieth-century history. This book – her second in a trilogy about the Langdon family – starts in 1953 in Cold War America. One of the characters works for the State Department, and McGeorge Bundy even makes a brief appearance in the book. The novel ends in 1986 during Ronald Reagan’s second term as president.

Because the complete trilogy encompasses twentieth-century American history, Early Warning sometimes takes on a Forest Gump-like quality, as world events affect the lives of individuals. The surprise sale of wheat to Russia and the casualties of the Vietnam War, for example, truly hit various Langdon family members where they live. Fortunately, Smiley has a gift for writing that makes us care about the individuals who populate her novels, and so the Gump-ish quality is somewhat mitigated.

What is interesting to me is the inclusion of Peoples Temple in any account of the twentieth century. Smiley introduces the Temple, along with Jim Jones, in 1973. One of the characters, Janet, joins the Temple in San Francisco and lives communally with other members. In 1977, Janet’s Aunt Eloise, an old-time leftist, “worried because, one visit to the Temple and one look at ‘Reverend’ Jones, and she knew what she was seeing—Joe Stalin from Indiana, the sort of fellow who sucked down a few ideas and then vomited them forth, now irreparably contaminated by the poisons of his very own body.” She helps her niece return to Iowa after the New West article comes out, but apparently Janet’s African American lover Lucas has gone with the others to Guyana.

Each chapter is headed by a year, so we know that 1978 will include the deaths in Jonestown. Janet is married to Jared and has a daughter Emily by then. She learns of the deaths by reading about them in the paper, although only 300 to 400 are reported dead that first day. She assumes that her friends and Lucas are all dead, and she believes that they had been killed by U.S. soldiers. She retains, at first, a belief in the existence of conspiracies against the Temple. Her husband immediately connects Congressman Ryan, assassinated on the airstrip, with passage of the Hughes-Ryan Act, which required congressional oversight of CIA operations. Peoples Temple and Jim Jones come up later in the book, but only as dangers that had been escaped. I won’t say more because there are a few surprises readers might want to enjoy on their own.

Strangely, the word “Jonestown” is never used; Smiley describes the agricultural project as the “piece of property” and the “Guyana compound.” But the narrative never dehumanizes the members because we meet several of them as living human beings rather than as faceless corpses. Animus is directed instead toward Jones. As her Uncle Frank reflects in 1981, “Janet had escaped that Peoples Temple psycho apparently unscathed.”

It appears that Smiley relied upon Wikipedia for some of her information. The listing for “Peoples Temple in San Francisco” explains why she consistently calls it the Peoples Temple, with the definite article, and reveals the source for her saying that the Geary Street facility in San Francisco had been a former Scottish Rite Temple; it had, though it also used the building next to it, a former synagogue. I do not understand, however, why the book asserts that members had moved from Indiana to Eureka, rather than to Ukiah. But these quibbles aside, the larger question is why she includes Peoples Temple in her account of the twentieth century.

Smiley appears to use Peoples Temple as a paradigm to represent the turn toward alternative religions, politics, and lifestyles in the 1960s and 1970s. In Peoples Temple, idealism, political activism, and pathology all coalesce into a universal type of human tragedy. Smiley might have employed Synanon to encapsulate the drug culture, or the Children of God to exemplify sexual freedom; she might have utilized the Black Panther Party to embody political activism, or one of the hundreds of utopian movements that flourished and then died to illustrate youthful romanticism. Peoples Temple encompasses all of these tendencies, and thus works well as a single exemplar.

What I want to see in the last novel in the trilogy is whether or not Janet or the others make use of the Jonestown website to track down those who died, or those who may still be alive. Alternative Considerations and its listing of those who died did not go online until 1998. Will Peoples Temple continue to resonate at the end of the twentieth century? Will the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” cause Janet or her friends any pain when they hear it? Will the group or the event have ongoing meaning for any of the characters? We will have to wait for the final installment to see how Jane Smiley answers these questions.