This Is Not a Beach Book

Let me make this clear at the outset: Beautiful Revolutionary is not the Beach Book of 2018. Not to knock either Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s new novel or beach books, but this is not an easy book to read. At times, it made me furious and sad. However, in these days of alternative facts, when the president wants to charge people who disagree with him with treason, this is a necessary book to read. Why? People need to read about a man who claimed he could make things better for his people, yet who brought them down with him in his self-destruction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the opening pages, we meet Evelyn and Lenny Lynden, a young married couple living in Evergreen Valley in Northern California. Evelyn – who will remind Jonestown scholars of Carolyn Moore Layton – is a French teacher, whose husband Lenny is still haunted by the brief affair she once had with Frenchman Jean Claude. Lenny, who comes from an affluent family, is a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, working at the local state hospital. They’ve only recently arrived in the Valley, when they hear about a church that is doing great things. Of course, we know it’s Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones.

Soon Evelyn finds herself drawn to Jones, first as a pastor, then as a lover. As Woollett put it: “He gives her a cabin. He gives her a gun. He gives her a barking dog. He gives her multiple orgasms.” There’s just the small detail of Rosaline – standing in for Marceline Jones – the long-suffering wife who enables her husband in his cheating and drug habit. You can tell when the novel’s point of view switches to Rosaline: she refers to Evelyn as “Eve,” a nickname Evelyn herself never uses. This is a sly move on Woollett’s part. As far as Rosaline is concerned, Evelyn is Eve, the woman who caused the exile from the Garden of Eden.

Evelyn and Lenny’s marriage is doomed, and Lenny finds himself in exile in Reno. There he meets Terra, a blonde girl nicknamed “Barbarella” by her coworkers for her breasts and beauty. Soon she too is in the Peoples Temple web. Add to the mix Eugene Luce, a cop who has secrets to hide behind his rough exterior; Bobbi, Eugene’s daughter, who becomes a pariah in the Temple after she defects; Sally Ann, Evelyn’s sister, the loyal nurse; and Soul, Evelyn’s little boy, “so adorable it’s hard to believe he came from a rape in a Mexican prison,” even if he just so happens to look like Jim Jones. Along with others, the cast of characters are thrown together in Ukiah, then Guyana. We all know how it’s going to end, but we can’t turn away from the clock ticking down to self-combustion.

Beautiful Revolutionary is amazing for the risks it takes. Woollett isn’t scared of showing Peoples Temple members at their worst: be it at catharsis meetings, trashing Bobbi during White Nights, and continuing to believe that the world is against them. It is incredibly hard to read from their point of view, simply because they believed a man who put fear in their hearts and in their heads. Yet they are also people who wanted to leave behind a better world. It all makes the story even more tragic.

Woollett also does well making the characters live on their own. With the introduction of each new character, I would think I recognized their real life counterpart, but then they would do something that my projected counterpart would never do, and I would have to shake myself and recall, this is fiction. It’s a novel. While there might be a grain of comparable reality within each character, they are all ultimately creations of Woollett’s imagination.

This is not a beach book. This is a book to read quietly while drinking tea. Afterward, a reader might think twice about using the phrase, “He’s drinking the Kool-Aid” or thinking they themselves would never get involved with a so-called cult. Once upon a time, you know, Evelyn and Lenny probably thought the same thing, even as they drove into Evergreen Valley for the first time, looking for a new home and a new church to join.

(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her short story in this edition of the jonestown report is Oona Chaplin. Her previous articles are here.)