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Titles similar to The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly
Traditional fairy tales include many disturbing, violent stories, but their sharp edges are often softened by magic, timely rescues, and the prevailing power of virtue over evil. Many YA authors rework those stories to remind us of their inherent darkness. Setting real-world trauma next to the gentler fairy-tale version simultaneously makes the trauma easier to bear while calling attention to the grimness of those stories, particularly regarding the casual cruelty against young women that often gets taken for granted. Stephanie Oakes’ chilling debut novel takes that tactic one step further by bringing a particularly brutal tale, The Handless Maiden, to concrete, harrowing life; stripping it of its symbolism; and giving a powerfully realistic voice to its main character.
When Oakes introduces Minnow for the first time, the 17-year-old handless girl is standing over the bloodied body of a young man mere hours after escaping the smoldering wreckage of the compound where she lived in the mountains. She’s quickly picked up by the police and soon convicted of aggravated assault and sent to a juvenile-detention center. Once she’s in prison, an FBI psychologist encourages Minnow to reveal what happened to her, and her story unfolds in a disaffected, yet bone-chillingly beautiful, first-person narrative.
Minnow has spent 12 of her 17 years living with the Kevinians, a fanatical doomsday cult in the Montana mountains that follows the teachings of their prophet, Kevin. He demands unquestioning loyalty, which is not a good match for clever, curious Minnow, who, in spite of her skepticism and Kevin’s harsh punishments for disobedience, is enchanted by his teachings and wants to find comfort in faith. But her disillusionment with Kevin comes to a horrific end when he announces that he intends to marry Minnow against her will. She attempts to escape but is caught. Outraged by her willfulness, Kevin commands her own father to cut off her hands with a hatchet.
What the Brothers Grimm gloss over in The Handless Maiden, Oakes focuses on with almost surgical vividness: nerves severed, shuddering bones, the smell of blood. But Oakes explores far more than just the realism of the heinous punishment as, in stunningly spare and gorgeous language, Minnow speaks grimly yet eloquently of the aftermath. With simmering fury and sharp gallows humor, she reveals her bitterness and the shattered state of her faith and trust in the universe, but her frosty tone occasionally breaks to let out a glimmer of resonant shock, pain, and fear. All of these roil about as she comes to terms with her brutal mutilation and ponders the possible future.
Minnow’s experience includes vestiges of fairy-tale details that hint at Oakes’ source material, but the heart of her story—the loss of agency at the hands of a power-hungry man—is all too familiar, and Oakes brings that element home by populating Minnow’s detention center with young girls who have been punished for fighting back. Many deserve to be there, maybe even Minnow, but justice is a murky concept for these appropriately angry young women, and Oakes subtly comments on the way attitudes about what girls deserve and what they are expected to endure arise, at least partially, from folktales, mythology, and biblical texts. Kevin’s damaging prophesies are so unhinged from reality that it’s easy to see how poisonous they are, but what about stories of witches, princesses, or even God? Are some of those stories any different from those written by a delusional man drunk on power?
In Oakes’ nuanced and haunting narrative, however, those questions become more ruminative than purely critical. For all her anger and bitterness, Minnow never becomes completely cynical, because life in prison is ironically freeing, and the solidarity she finds among other young women miraculously gives her a sense of empowerment and hope. But the magic of Minnow’s tale isn’t in the power of virtue, an omnipotent God, or justice; in fact, those things prove to have little power at all. Rather, it’s in her determination to thrive in the face of shocking trauma and betrayal by choosing to value genuine kindness and her own deep well of inner strength.
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