Like Laura Elizabeth Woollett, the author of Beautiful Revolutionary, I am fascinated by the story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. Jones led more than 900 people to their deaths in 1978, ordered the deaths of up to five other people and I can’t understand how he did it. In her afterword, Woollett discusses the “Jonestown vortex”—the massive amounts of information that we have about the cult and its members—and how it was so easy to get overwhelmed by it. The archives of Jonestown material fueled this fictional account of a woman and her husband being completely swept up by Jones’ forceful personality and ideas, unable to see the dangers and red flags even at the very end. Curiously, everything in this book is based on fact but all of the names except Jones’ have been changed; I don’t know why.
Beautiful Revolutionary opens as Lenny and Evelyn Lynden are driving to their new home in Evergreen Valley, California. Lenny is blissful because of his bright future (he has a job at a mental hospital in lieu of military service) and because of marijuana. His wife, Evelyn, is annoyed. It doesn’t take long to pick up on her doubts about marrying her boyish husband. It’s unclear what she was looking for, but it’s dawning on her that Lenny is not it. After a few very span of time, Evelyn goes out looking for something more. And she finds Jim Jones and Peoples Temple and she dives right in. Peoples Temple wasn’t always a cult. At first, in the 1950s and early 1960s, while Jones was perfecting his act, the Temple worked to help poor people and push desegregation. By the time Evelyn finds them, though, Jones is changing into a dangerous, hyper-paranoid, over-sexed creature.
Beautiful Revolutionary jumps a few years at a time from Lenny and Evelyn’s joining the Temple right up until its apocalypse in 1978. While Lenny allows himself to be pushed here and there by Jones’ directives (including divorce from Evelyn) without standing up for himself, Evelyn is emotionally and physically seduced by Jones. Over the chapters, I saw how a guilt-ridden, dissatisfied, middle class white woman found what she was looking for in Jones. There are some disturbing Oedipal overtones, but it seems as though what Evelyn wanted was direction and the power to assuage her race and class consciousness. It never becomes clear why Lenny joined and stayed other than that he was too weak to resist. This is the question that keeps me poking my nose into accounts of Peoples Temple. I want to know what it is that makes people act against their own safety and devote themselves wholly to something that will hurt them, take advantage of them. Evelyn gets power, sure, but she is also exploited by Jones.
Readers who want to understand Jim Jones will probably remain unsatisfied by Beautiful Revolutionary. He remains frustratingly opaque. There are some clues about what pushes Jones off the deep end. A big one is his increasing use of amphetamines. Apart from that, all we see is a man who can be darkly charming when he wants to be transform into a monster. I had one other quibble apart from Jones’ unknowability: Britishisms. All of the characters are Americans and the book is set mostly in the United States but there are a few phrases that are distinctly English.
Aside from my quibbles, Beautiful Revolutionary is hypnotically written. Many parts of this book are as seductive as the cult was, at least until the paranoia takes over at the end and every brain cell I had was yelling at me and the characters to get out before it was too late. The end of Peoples Temple is handled well. It’s not played for shock value. Instead, it’s complex and terribly, terribly sad. Woollett’s book is a tasteful version of the story of the cult and its members. Thankfully, it does not glorify Jones the way that true crime sometimes does for some murderers. It also avoids the trap of too much foreshadowing. Perhaps this is why so many names were changed. If Woollett was willing to change those, maybe this time we would get happy ending this time around—at least until the hammer came down at Jonestown.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.