Guest Blogger: Peggy Riley, author of "Amity & Sorrow"
Peggy Riley is a writer and playwright. She recently won a Highly
Commended prize in the 2011 Bridport Prize and was published in their
latest anthology. Amity & Sorrow is her first novel.
My 1970s California childhood was filled with violent faiths and death cults, from Charles Manson’s Family of former hippies who committed murder in his name in the Hollywood Hills to Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, which moved from San Francisco to Guyana, hoping to build Eden. I will never forget the bodies, strewn across the jungle floor lying flat and embracing, all having drunk his poison punch, or the fiery siege at Waco that killed the Branch Davidians, praying inside their church. In America’s history of handmade faiths are charismatic leaders who set out to change the world and the followers they gather, desperate to believe.
I began to write my first novel, Amity & Sorrow, when I saw a newspaper image--a wooden church on fire, sitting on a barren prairie. My mind added women to the picture, a group of women in long skirts running through the smoke. I began to wonder who the women were and why their church was on fire. I thought of the strength of belief in America’s history, a nation founded by religious radicals in search of freedom, and the fear of outsiders and the government that forces new faiths into isolation and secrecy. In creating the church at the center of my novel, I knew it would have its roots in the American impulse to build utopia, but that it would be influenced by my own memories of more recent and darker faiths. Its believers would be women, drawn from a world that had abandoned them, rejected them, leaving them alone, afraid and eager to join a family, at any cost. Their children would be raised outside the world, in an Eden that was slowly turning to rot.
Amity and Sorrow are two sisters, run from the fire by their mother--by one of their mothers--for their home is a fundamentalist, polygamous church of one man and his fifty wives. They drive for days until, frightened and exhausted, they crash onto a farm on the Oklahoma Panhandle. The girls find themselves in a new and strange world, far from their faith and family, when all their lives they had only been waiting for the world to end. Will they find a new way to be a family without their faith? Or will they have to move heaven and earth to get back home?