Beautiful Revolutionary. By Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Scribe Publications, 2018. 416 pages. $17.00 paper.
A young couple, Evelyn and Lenny Lynden, have moved to California north of San Francisco in the late sixties. There they meet Jim Jones, join Peoples Temple, and – despite the collapse of their marriage – remain with the church through its transitions through its transition in California and Guyana until its implosion on November 18, 1978.
This book is a novelization of the lives of Carolyn and Larry Layton. Other key Temple members appear, also with names similar to their real-life counterparts – Rosaline Jones is Marceline, Rev. Burne is Rev. Moore – although others are fusions of different people with familiar names or attributes. Jim Jones is the only person to appear under his own name, but for all his recognizability, he is very much in the background throughout the book, his field of gravity making everyone else move.
We also witness a number of key events in Peoples Temple history, such as the defection of “The Eight Revolutionaries,” the staged assassination attempts on Jim Jones, the trips to deposit Temple money in foreign bank accounts, the fake healings, and of course the fact finding mission to Jonestown by Congressman Ryan.
The book is beautifully written in a language that is rich, sensuous, almost poetic, and utterly heartbreaking in its depiction of the death of the community. It captures how the involvement of members begins with giving their time, money and loyalty to the shared ideals, eventually transforming to an all-consuming devotion to Jim Jones and “the Cause,” where only the expression of a willingness to die is enough to prove their conviction.
The dynamic of guilt, suffering and sacrifice as currencies in the Temple is portrayed convincingly, for instance Rosaline’s defence of Jim’s adultery “until the shame turns righteous” (130) or Lenny’s sentiment that “he is proud of what they’ve made together even if it has destroyed them” (72). Evelyn’s love for her son, Soul, is also obvious. He loves her unconditionally, with all her shortcomings and with an innocence that reminds her of what she has lost or left behind. He is her soul, which she ultimately extinguishes for the higher purpose.
What makes this book really stand out from much of what has previously been written about Peoples Temple is how the author steers clear of passing judgement. With a tragedy so immense as November 18, it is only natural to try to make sense of the nonsensical by trying to find someone to blame it on. To her credit, Laura Elizabeth Woollett does not. The result makes the book an interesting discussion piece for students and anyone who would like to challenge what they already know, bearing in mind, of course, that the book is very much a fictional account.
Perhaps that is actually the true merit of an artistic representation of a topic which has already been described and analysed time and time again by scholars, writers, and the media. The poetic license allows us to connect the dots anew and thus think about Peoples Temple in new ways. Perhaps Carolyn Layton was not just a steely, cold administrator; perhaps Marceline Jones was not just a victim of her husband’s madness; perhaps they were actually humans like the rest of us, with motivations, desires and dreams so often overlooked in the race to condemn the obviously heinous acts they took part in. As the author writes, “their story is no longer theirs, and they can barely hear each other over the screaming headlines” (212). Of course this book too is part of this colonization, but because it is more a whisper than a shout, we may actually hear it over the cacophony of the media coverage of the approaching 40th anniversary of the tragedy.