Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s novel Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe 2018) is a work of fiction inspired by the real-life events of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple. That story is well known, of the charismatic leader and his unorthodox church, which tragically ended when over 900 people committed mass suicide at the Peoples Temple headquarters in South America. The author has undertaken rigorous research, including speaking to former members of the church, survivors of the tragedy, and family members of those who died. She has invented the lives of fictional characters based on what she knows to be true and has imagined how and why men and women were drawn to Jim Jones in such a compelling way.
In 1968, Evelyn Lynden – an atheist but a minister’s daughter, an independent woman but newly married, a ‘bitch with a bleeding heart’ – follows her husband, Lenny, to the rural idyll of Evergreen Valley in California. Lenny is a conscientious objector and he and Evelyn both have strong views about politics, war, racial tensions, inequality and societal upheaval. When she enters the orbit of Jim Jones, she is pulled dangerously close to his inner sanctum, which threatens her marriage and the relations within her family.
This book is so interesting because it doesn’t place Jim Jones at the centre of the story; rather it is Evelyn and Lenny, and so many other characters, that come in and out of focus as the narrative progresses. We learn about the normal lives of average people, the young ones striving for a better world, the older people frightened of change, and with each we are given a glimpse of understanding as to how they were attracted to Jones and what made them not only stay with him, but become so entrenched in his complicated communal way of life. It is easy to write off cult members as somehow slightly unhinged or less tethered to reality than we imagine we would be in the same situation, but this book presents well-rounded characters with their flaws alongside their dreams and ambitions, and somehow makes the incomprehensible something we can understand.
The writing in Beautiful Revolutionary is strong, assured and entrancing and the characters are engaging. The main plot – the rise of the Peoples Temple, the killing of a Congressman and the mass suicide – are all known facts, and yet this doesn’t diminish the story’s pull. Even though we already know how it ends before it begins, it is the fate of the many individual characters that we have gradually come to know and care about through the weaving of the story that really keeps us guessing until the final moments. This is a story about dangerous magnetism, peer pressure, fanaticism, soul-searching, sacrifice, loyalty and religion. It is about taking advantage of people’s yearning for idealistic fantasies. It is the story of ordinary men and women caught up in something that grew beyond their beliefs and out of their control.