Book Review: Quiver by Julia Watts (2018)

October 23rd, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

You say helpmeet, I say handmaid.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, and domestic violence.)

Mr. Hazlett’s getting worked up, too. A vein in his forehead bulges disturbingly. “In a Christian home, the man is like God, and his wife is the holy church.”

Dad laughs out loud. Maybe a little too loud. “So you get to be a deity, and she just gets to be a building?”

I don’t know what shocks me more—my grandmother cursing or hearing her say I have the right to choose what to do with my life.

— 4.5 stars —

Liberty Hazlett is the oldest of six children. Well, seven counting the baby on the way. Nine with the two angel babies that died in utero. Each child is named after a Christian virtue: Justice, Patience, Faith, Valor, Charity. They live in rural Tennessee, where father James has his own small business (Hazlett and Sons Pest Control), and mother Becky homeschools them. The kids (the girls in particular) have little contact with the outside world, and their everyday lives are strictly regulated. (For real: they’re allowed ten minutes for a shower, as “it’s not good to stay in the bathroom too long because it leads to temptation”).

Libby and her family are part of the Quiverfull movement: a Christian patriarchy that doesn’t practice any form of birth control, including so-called “natural family planning.” (Think: the Duggars.) Rather, they “trust the Lord” to give them as many children as he desires/thinks they can handle – each of which is to become an arrow in the Lord’s quiver, a Christian soldier in His army, hence the sect’s (read: cult’s) name.

At sixteen years old, Libby is barreling towards marriageable age. This means wedding a virtuous Christian man of her father’s choosing; accepting her husband as the head of the household; and obeying him in all matters, from sex to finances to child rearing…even what opinions she should adopt on any given topic under the Heavens. It also means churning out children like a baby factory, until her body wears out. Only, pray as she might, Libby doesn’t want this life for herself. She knows it’s sinful, but she has two eyes and a fully functioning brain, and she can see the toll it’s taking on her mother.

Zo Forrester and her family – younger brother Owen and parents Jen and Todd – just moved into “the old Dobbins place” next door. Life in Knoxville was wearing them all down, so they traded it in for a simpler existence in the country. Todd traded in his nursing job for one at the department of health, and Jen homeschools the kids and does some weaving on the side.

The Hazletts might define Zo as an uppity young heathen woman, but Zo’s gender identity is more complicated than all that: she’s gender fluid.

Being a lesbian was really important to Hadley, and she wanted me to say I was one, too. But if I said I was a lesbian, I’d be saying I was a 100 percent girl who only liked other 100 percent girls, and I couldn’t say that. Sometimes I feel like a boy in lipstick. Sometimes I feel like a girl with a bulge in her jeans. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter. I’m fine with all of this, but Hadley wasn’t.

In contrast to the “tragic queer” narratives that dominate fiction (yes, LGBTQ folks face higher levels of violence across the board, and it’s important to explore this – but we need uplifting, happy stories, too!), the Forresters are incredibly accepting of both their kids. They’re also super-progressive and open-minded, basically the exact opposite of Lord James, so much so that I wish they could retroactively and imaginarily adopt me.

For reasons that no doubt include loneliness and isolation, the Hazlett and Forrester kids – Libby + Zo and Val + Owen in particular – are drawn to each other, despite their differences. Even the women find companionship and understanding in their unlikely friendship. At first, Mr. Hazlett allows limited socialization, viewing it as a means to an end: namely, converting the sinners next door. But when an ice cream social goes sideways, he forbids his family from having anything to do with them. But teens are gonna teen, am I right?

I thought I’d like Quiver – I have a strange can’t-look-away, car-accident fascination for the Quiverfull movement – but it’s even better than I expected. Libby and Zo are complex, compelling protagonists; no surprise there. But Becky has great backstory that’s equal amounts engaging and depressingly predictable. (Just look at the Jonestown recruits.) Jen and Todd are both awesome too; how could you not love a dad who describes himself as a “feminist vegetarian atheist socialist who votes for Democrats because that’s the best you can hope for in this country” and “believe[s] in labor unions, gun control, LGBTQIA equality, contraception, and separation of church and state.” Like I said, adopt me please!

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of each girl; given their radically different worldviews (or indoctrination, in Libby’s case), it’s really neat to read such different accounts of the same event. Watts paints each girl with depth and nuance, which is no small feat in Libby’s case – she could all too easily become a caricature. Tattletale/Little Miss Perfect Patience kind of skirts that line, but I feel like the ending really speaks to the complete and utter indoctrination she’s experienced. I felt rather bad for her by the last page. Again, no small feat, since she acts like such a terrible sister/daughter/Sister throughout the book.

As someone who’s been on the atheist/Zo side of the friendship equation, there was actually quite a bit to which I could relate here. Additionally, the idea of showing civility towards uncivil people – people who would kidnap migrant children and keep them in cages, for example – is especially relevant now. (As I write this, it is the last day of June, and #KeepFamiliesTogether protests are happening around the world.) Regarding the ‘rents, most of whom were trying to “be civil” for the sake of their kids’ friendships, should one really smile and nod when a Mr. Hazlett tells your wife to shut up because women aren’t allowed to have opinions? Should you smile and nod even if it’s his own wife he’s talking to?

In sum, Quiver is entertaining and engaging and even kind of fun, between the depressing and infuriating bits. Most of all, it’s hecka relevant today, which is perhaps the most depressing and infuriating thing of all.

That said, I really wish the Forresters had adopted their bunnies instead of buying them from a breeder. Not cool, guys. Also Daiya cheese exists and it is AWESOME. You can even make your own vegan mozzarella nowadays, Jen. Please allow me to recommend The Cheesy Vegan, by John Schlimm.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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