There’s a line from the movie Juno that kept floating through my head as I read Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God. One night, as the title character Juno returns home, her dad asks her what’s she’s been up to. She answers, “Dealing with things way above my maturity level.” Jory Quanbeck deals with things way above her maturity level all through this book. Jory is stranded in an environment where she is surrounded with people who don’t know what to do. Because she’s only 14, Jory has a lot she has to figure out on her own. First, her sister turns up pregnant. Then Jory has to go to a secular school. After that, things get much, much worse in this heartbreaking and frustrating novel.
The Girl Who Slept with God opens with a prologue showing Jory and her sister Grace moving into a house out in the country around Arco, Idaho* in the late summer of 1970. Jory is not happy with this. She doesn’t want her life disrupted because of her sister, but her father insists that the move is just for a little while. The narrative then moves back a few weeks to show us how Jory and Grace ended up being separated from their family. We learn that the Quanbecks are so devout and odd that even the other members of their nearly fundamentalist church think they’re going a little bit far. Their diet is bland and contains more lentils than a hippie commune. The girls aren’t allowed to dance or swim with members of the opposite sex. Grace, the oldest Quanbeck girl, is just about to return (early) from her work as a missionary in Mexico—her lifelong dream. It takes Jory a few days to work out why Grace is home early. None of the adults will tell the 14-year-old and her younger sister that Grace is pregnant. On top of that, Grace believes she’s pregnant with a holy child and that it’s god’s will.
One might think that Grace would be the narrator for The Girl Who Slept with God; the book is named for her, after all. But the story is a rough coming of age tale narrated by Jory. Jory is a late bloomer at 14. She’s only just started to be attracted to others. Her body is still developing, which makes navigating the sexual world of teenagers even more awkward. The fact that her sister is the talk of her community and that she has to go to a secular school with children she’s been warned away from all her life just makes it all worse. Jory is understandably terrified and confused and angry for most of this book.
Jory’s father believes that a “brief” separation—implied to last through Grace’s delivery—will help everyone move on from what he sees as Grace’s fall. Her pregnancy might cause him to lose his job at a Christian school teaching science. It’s already impacted the family’s social standing. Oren is an incredibly naïve man. No one is ever going to forget about Grace. He also doesn’t realize that putting Jory on her own, outside of their community, leaves her to navigate drugs, sex, alcohol, ethics, clothing, and even her own biology without a guide. The fact that Oren keeps getting angry with Jory for her “mistakes”—some are real mistakes, others are mistakes only because of Oren’s rigid beliefs—made my blood boil.
Just as Jory seems to be getting a handle on who she is, Grace takes a drastic step that changes everything. At this point, the dénouement of the book took a few turns that I had a hard time swallowing. I don’t want to say too much about the ending. It might work for some readers. I will just say that I wasn’t able to follow Jory’s logic at the end of The Girl Who Slept with God and I completely lost whatever point the book was trying to make. Perhaps it’s my own bias, but I think there are some things that are unforgivable. The reason I say this ending might work for some readers is that I recognize that I am a vindictive person on occasion. Injustice, especially when it falls outside of the law, enrages me. Still, a reader who is more forgiving might finding the ending of The Girl Who Slept with God apt and satisfying.
I received a free advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher while I was at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference for review consideration. It will be released 4 August 2015.
* I wanted to read this book because of the title and because it’s one of the few books set in my home state of Idaho. We’re not just about potatoes, folks.