Unlike other novels I have reviewed that are based on Jonestown and Peoples Temple, Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett doesn’t completely rewrite history or use Temple history as a preposterous premise for an action story. Beautiful Revolutionary is more of a character study. As Woollett herself has written for this website, the main character, Evelyn Lynden, and her husband, Lenny Lynden, are based on Carolyn Moore Layton and Larry Layton. Despite the author’s extensive research, however, the book is rightfully called a novel, because no one truly knows what Carolyn, Larry, and other Temple members thought and believed. The book explores not only these characters’ feelings towards the movement and its leader, but also how their involvement in Peoples Temple affected their relationship with one another, the eventual dissolution of that relationship, the disconnect between them, and their continued commitment to Jones and the Temple until the bitter end. And because the book does not maintain its focus exclusively on Evelyn, I did find myself wondering if a plural form of the title – e.g., Beautiful Revolutionaries– might be more fitting.
For a fictional treatment of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, this is hands-down the best that I have read. I find Woollett a gifted writer whose work engages the reader and keeps them turning the page. (To get a sense of her writing style, consider reading her stories listed on her page on this site, including Danger Cycle; or her award-winning short story Soybeans; or her short story entitled Marceline). Besides her ability to turn an interesting phrase, she simply writes the events as she imagines them occurring, letting them just be. The author seems adept at placing herself in the position of Temple members, and she writes in a manner that artfully takes the reader along with her into these situations. This is a book without clear-cut heroes and villains. In this way, the book humanizes its subjects and avoids judgments.
The book was an ambitious task, coming in just short of 400 pages in length. Moreover, in placing the focus of the book primarily on the Lyndens [Laytons], the author has chosen to try to tackle two of the most controversial and enigmatic people within the Temple. It packs several significant Temple events into the story line, including the defection of the Eight Revolutionaries, the first “poisoning” (during a Planning Commission meeting), the move to Guyana, the defection of a key aide who went public with her story, and the final day. There are enough characters in the book that it doesn’t feel like the lives of most of those who perished are dismissed as mere “extras” in the story. Despite focusing on a handful of characters as the primary players in the story, Woollett strives to depict the community of people, including dysfunctional family dynamics, of this large movement.
One of my criticisms of Beautiful Revolutionary is that it seems to be simultaneously both too broad and too narrow in scope. It seems too broad because some of the storyline concentrates on other characters (for example, Luce and Wayne). This takes the focus off of Evelyn and Lenny and divorces the reader from those characters’ reactions to those events. (I will concede, however, that from the writer’s perspective, this had to be the most straightforward and practical way of writing about certain events, such as the defection of the Eight Revolutionaries.) On the other hand, some events related to Evelyn and Lenny do not yield much more than the actions of the characters. One example [spoiler alert] is a subplot that involves Evelyn traveling to France on business for the Temple and coincidentally spotting her former lover Jean-Claude. She follows him and even tries to catch his attention by showing up in places where she expects him to be. But why? If he showed interest in her – despite the fact that he’s now married – would she try to have a romantic interlude with him, perhaps even consider defecting from the Temple? Is there some sort of revenge Evelyn had in mind? Or is this all just about a little taste of freedom while out of sight of Jones’ watchful eye? This detour is never really explained, and the notion that Evelyn would interrupt an important mission for the Temple because of Jean-Claude doesn’t really ring true. It does somehow humanize her to see her upset by catching a glimpse of her former fiancé, and it seems to add depth and surprise to the Evelyn character; but without any indication of her feelings and motivations, it seems a bit extraneous.
Other actions on Evelyn’s part, however, seem to be glaringly missing, such as her role in planning the deaths. She is aware that Jones is planning them—she observes Jim and the doctor testing poison on a dog shortly before the deaths occur—but her role seems minimized. She listens to the events unfolding at the pavilion, writes final reports, burns papers she doesn’t want found in the aftermath, observes her sister poisoning people, poisons her own son, and then drinks the poison herself. But the real-life woman upon whom Evelyn is based undoubtedly played a larger role in the planning of the mass deaths (see, for example “Analysis of Future Prospects,” believed to be authored by Carolyn Layton).
In the end, there’s a lot I don’t know or understand about Evelyn Lynden. Maybe that seems fair, given that there’s so much that is not known or understood about Carolyn Layton. However, I thought the novel would try to deal with the conundrum of a woman who for some reason probably would have liked to have lived (as Woollett noted in her piece entitled From Carolyn to Evelyn) and yet was likely more than complicit in the deaths of over 900 people.
There’s also little indication of Evelyn believing that Peoples Temple is truly being targeted by the U.S. government. Indeed, Beautiful Revolutionary depicts Jim Jones as not just the most paranoid person in Jonestown, but pretty much the only paranoid person. I think a lot of the true desperation and pressure felt by the community in general, and by Jones and his inner circle in particular, are not palpable in this novel. There is a defection of a close aide in the novel, and although it brings a Congressman down upon the community, we know that in reality there were multiple key defections. All of them spurred paranoia among Jones and his leadership circle that subsequently spilled over to the Jonestown population at large. Additionally, there’s no equivalent of John Victor Stoen, around whom much of the paranoia and turmoil centered. While omitting such a character decreases the complexity and length of the story, it also decreases some of the intensity as well.
Part of what makes this novel manageable for the author (in terms of preventing it from ballooning an additional 200 pages), is her skill at consolidating characters. To compact information and reduce the complexity of the myriad players in the real Jonestown saga, the novel sometimes combines two or more Temple members into a single character. One example [spoiler alert] is Terra, the second ex-wife of Lenny Lynden; she is the key aide who defects and ultimately reports to the press and the government. The Terra character may represent a compilation of three people: Teri Buford (who was the last defection before the mass deaths, had lovely blonde hair, and whose name is similar); Karen Tow Layton (Larry Layton’s second wife); and Debbie Layton Blakey (Larry’s sister, who is, in fact, the Jonestown defector who spoke out when she returned to the US six months before the deaths). It’s an interesting twist to consolidate the characters, and it saves time and space instead of including all of their individual stories. In some ways, this may be part of what kept me turning the pages: questions about which characters are going to fulfill which roles in the larger drama. It’s a bit like watching a remake of a movie and wondering how or if characters will be altered in the new rendition of the story. For readers familiar with Peoples Temple, this may add some elements of surprise.
However, for readers unfamiliar with Peoples Temple, this may be misleading, which brings me to the major caveat I have about this book: even though it is clearly labelled a novel, there may be readers who take the book as truth. Because it is so well researched, it’s often difficult to know what is based on truth and what came from the author’s imagination. This may be especially true with the Evelyn character, given that she is the one who was most extensively researched. Moreover, the omission of some individuals and consolidation of others who played pivotal roles in the Peoples Temple story may create distortions in people’s minds that only reading non-fiction accounts will correct.
All that being said, I found this for the most part to be an interesting and well-written fictionalized treatment of the subject matter. I enjoy the author’s writing style, and I can readily see why she has won awards and a two-book publishing contract for her writing. One might even say she writes beautifully. Importantly, she humanizes Temple members and seems to feel great attachment to and respect for them. Unlike other Jonestown novels I’ve reviewed, there’s no exploitation or sensationalization—just a story about which the author seems to care very deeply. In the world of Peoples Temple fiction, this is a revolutionary approach. The key is for people to accept it for what it is – a novel – rather than an historical account. If people read Beautiful Revolutionary, they may very well get sucked into the Jonestown Vortex that brought Laura Elizabeth Woollett to write her novel in the first place.
(Katherine Hill is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver and is a regular contributor to this website. Her complete collection of articles is here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)