Drought has settled on the town of Peaches, California. The area of the Central Valley where fourteen-year-old Lacey May and her alcoholic mother live was once an agricultural paradise. Now it’s an environmental disaster, a place of cracked earth and barren raisin farms. In their desperation, residents have turned to a cult leader named Pastor Vern for guidance. He promises, through secret “assignments,” to bring the rain everybody is praying for.
Lacey has no reason to doubt the pastor. But then her life explodes in a single unimaginable act of abandonment: her mother, exiled from the community for her sins, leaves Lacey and runs off with a man she barely knows. Abandoned and distraught, Lacey May moves in with her widowed grandma, Cherry, who is more concerned with her taxidermy mice collection than her own granddaughter. As Lacey May endures the increasingly appalling acts of men who want to write all the rules, and begins to uncover the full extent of Pastor Vern’s shocking plan to bring fertility back to the land, she decides she must go on a quest to find her mother, no matter what it takes. With her only guidance coming from the romance novels she reads and the unlikely companionship of the women who knew her mother, she must find her own way through unthinkable circumstances.
Possessed of an unstoppable plot and a brilliantly soulful voice, Godshot is a book of grit and humor and heart, a debut novel about female friendship and resilience, mother-loss and motherhood, and seeking salvation in unexpected places. It introduces a writer who gives Flannery O’Connor’s Gothic parables a Californian twist and who emerges with a miracle that is all her own.
Vern had gotten the boys white baseball caps to wear to keep the sun from their eyes. Something useful, I thought. I could have used a cap. The sun was always in my eyes, my nose always in various states of peeling sunburn. But that was the way with boys. Always getting things that made them better—pants with pockets, tools for building—while girls received adornments, things to make us appear better to others.
It’s easy to be judgmental when you’re on the outside looking in; how could anyone fall for the obvious deception of this (or any) cult and continue to be misled despite the horrific actions of Pastor Vern and his following? I believe Bieker explains this well, showing how poverty and desperation can push people into an environment that can brainwash and destroy almost anyone.
As we follow Lacey May, we get to experience the range of her devotion; she knows nothing outside of the cult and has grown up believing in Vern and his miracles. At first, nothing can shake Lacey May’s belief,
she’s willing to deceive her mother to tell Vern when she begins menstruating and even turns traitor by revealing her mother’s failings to the church, leading to her expulsion. Lacey May believes in Vern so wholeheartedly that she goes along with Lyle’s ‘assignment’ even as it forces her to start questioning why God and Vern (the same powerful entity in the cult’s mind) would want her cousin to rape her.
However when she finds out that she is not the only one forced to endure horrific acts as part of the greater plan to end the drought, it sends her down a path of uncertainty and questioning. Unfortunately, her grandmother, her cousin, and all of her community is wholly under Vern’s spell and willing to sacrifice Lacey May if the church requires it.
The real heroes here are the strong women outside of the cult who did what they could to help and support Lacey May in any way she would accept. They pushed when they could but never made her feel unwelcome or judged. She has been sheltered and brainwashed by terrible people, suffered horrible abuse at an incredibly young age, and, understandably, this would make her highly naive and wary of outsiders. Daisy and Hazel do a truly wonderful job of accepting without judgment while still trying to lead her away from the cult. Even Florin is supportive as a peer – she has experience dealing with trauma after what happened with Daisy, and Florin seems empathetic and wise in her interactions with Lacey May.
My heart broke for the experiences Lacey May endured. From neglect to physical, mental, and sexual abuse, she has survived more than most people do at only fourteen years old. I can appreciate the story here, the unflinching honesty and introspection that Lacey May exhibits, but I struggled to read and to finish Godshot. It seemed to take forever for the story to get started, and even once it had, it felt like it wasn’t going anywhere fast. If you appreciate a slow burn with lots of trivial details and backstory, this is the book for you – I didn’t have the patience, though, and this has influenced the overall rating for me.