Review: After the Fire by Will Hill
By Lesley Smith
After the Fire is a young adult novel which addresses the experience of belonging to an extreme religious cult.
It is loosely based on a real event – the siege of the cult known as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993. Their leader claimed he was the Messiah figure prophesied in the Bible but government forces felt the cult was a threat as it was known that they were stockpiling firearms, hence the siege which lasted 51 days. Eventually, FBI agents stormed the cult’s compound and after the ensuing battle, 76 people (including 25 children) were found to have died. The government’s handling of the Waco siege (which played out in the national and international media) was heavily criticized.
Will Hill uses this catastrophe as a springboard to explore how and why people might become involved in such a community, and what the psychological effects might be. He calls his fictional cult the Lord’s Legion and focuses on the experience of one particular individual, Moonbeam, a survivor of the destruction of the Legion’s base. She is described as “strong, vulnerable, complicated, sarcastic and brilliant” and the indoctrination to which she has been subjected is powerfully conveyed:
“Before my mom was Banished, I believed in him, and in the Legion, with all my heart, and part of me misses – will always miss – the certainty that came with that, the power and pride that came with being part of something that was right and True.” (p218)
Hill says his work is “not intended as an attack on anyone’s religious beliefs.” It is “a story about power and corruption, and how charismatic figures can twist faith to serve their own ends.” The leader of the cult in the novel, Father John, certainly wields a lot of power, though his methods of control are often cruel rather than charismatic and it can be hard to see why his followers love him. There is some ambiguity in the presentation of his character – for instance, does he really believe in his own creed?
The structure of the story is highly effective and scaffolds a thrilling and emotive drama. The protagonist is being cared for in a rehabilitation centre and she is interviewed daily by a psychiatrist, Dr Hernandez, who wants to help her and Agent Carlyle from the FBI who has been tasked with finding out what really happened inside the compound. The past, consequently, is filled in for the reader through flashbacks prompted by their questions. At first Moonbeam cannot trust them but her gradual opening up serves to show her beginning to come to terms with what has happened and suspense is created because the reader knows all along that there are terrible things she has not yet revealed. It takes time for her to be able to talk about the events and her feelings, and there are some things that she cannot even bear to think about. Guilt, loyalty and the remains of indoctrination limit her revelations. We can see the barriers in her mind. Some readers may find this a little heavy-handed at times – perhaps there are too many hints at dark secrets:
“But then I think about my mom and Nate and the boxes and the locked door in the basement of the Big House. I think about my Sisters running towards the Governments with rifles in their hands and the five gunshots and what I found and what I did.” (8 things here!)
However, the atmosphere of life in the compound is skilfully portrayed and the whole novel provides a truly immersive and thought-provoking experience. Hill portrays ordinary people and how they might behave in extraordinary circumstances. On p424, Agent Carlyle says of the members of the Legion: “I don’t think they were stupid or vicious or weak. I think they were misled, and I think what happened to them could happen to anybody, given the right set of circumstances.”A key theme is how we can know what is real and who to trust, but ultimately After the Fire is a powerful and superbly well-written story of survival.