*THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS*
Fourteen-year-old Sam Snyder thinks he is going on a short vacation to visit his godfather. However, what he doesn’t know is that his adoptive mother intends to drop him off at a Baptist reform school in Missouri, a school basically in the middle of nowhere, with no possible means of escape. Surrounded by fences, oppressive staff and an equally oppressive religion, Sam Snyder quickly realises he isn’t in California anymore, and there’s no room or tolerance for the old, basketball kid to live free. Between fistfights, writing lines and pining after a girl that he’s never spoken to, forbidden to even look at, Sam struggles to adjust to this new life he is condemned to.
Based on a true story, Matthew John Echan’s God*s Will is a compelling, but disturbing story of survival, a heart-wrenching depiction of the horrors of reformatory programs rooted in religious beliefs. For the entirety of the novel, we follow protagonist Sam as he struggles to keep his head down, do as he is told and not step out of line because if he even utters a cuss word, he’s in for it. Sam struggles to hold onto who he was and who he still hopes to be in an environment of physical and psychological abuse and it’s heart-breaking to read from start to end.
“Blood rinsed over the rocks, splashing up on the boots, and as I watched it wash away, I knew, no way I was making it outta Mount Zion.”
Writing wise, first-time author Echan expertly brings to life the fictional Mount Zion Baptist Boarding Academy and the characters surrounding it. The details are so vivid and the characters are so well-developed and realistic, you genuinely feel like you’re right there next to Sam as he fights the other boys, as he steals cigarettes, as he writes his letters to his moms begging for some shower shoes. Each character, even the most strictest Brother Bruce who as a reader you despise as he instils fear into these kids to keep them under check are emotionally intelligent, living and breathing individuals that stay in the corner of your mind, long after you’ve finished the chapter and closed the book.
In particular, readers will feel as though they are on the journey with Sam, a well-developed hero who is relatable and completely unsure of himself and his beliefs. With every chapter, you can clearly see the deterioration of his psyche as Mount Zion erodes his innocence, destroys his past life and self. Even when he manages to escape the place and get home in the end, there simply is no escaping Mount Zion as even when he is shooting hoops with his brother, he’s still there. Mentally and psychologically, Echan demonstrates the impact of such a place on a kid’s psyche. This is also evident in Will who, upon arrival, cannot stop himself from crying he’s that distraught. Personally, I enjoyed Will as a character and I wish he was introduced earlier so we could understand him and his backstory more. The same goes for Brother Ed who was incredibly interesting as a character. I wish we got more into his supposed future plans.
Echan’s writing is filled with foreboding dread but it also has moments of laughter and tenderness as these kids create bonds that will last forever. When Sam leaves, I felt the same loss myself for his departure from these boys he has grown to call his friends. Filled with amusing dialogue, God* s Will will make you laugh out loud but also cry and cheer for the characters.
While mainly character focused, plot wise Echan also creates a narrative that will leave you thinking about the impact of religion as reform, and how while often portrayed as primarily a good thing, can also have a negative impact on young adolescents’ lives. For these kids, religion removes their free will as Sam repeats many times, they are slaves, they will die as slaves unless they obey to the Brothers’ rules. Filled with twists and turns, I was thoroughly engaged throughout the entire story and while the pacing picks up in the second half, the first half sets up the story, setting and characters with ease and expertise.
My only criticism of the novel is that with every chapter, I had the expectation and the hope that Sam would create a rebellion – his plan with Tyler and Jack would go ahead. Therefore, when Sam finally ends up getting out (something I did not expect), I was disappointed to find the plan was not going to happen. And when news finally gets out about Will’s supposed death and Tyler and Jack’s attempted escape, I wish Sam was there so we could get the first person perspective on the action. For something I thought the book was building up to, to simply be pushed aside, I was slightly disappointed. But then again, perhaps I should have seen it coming. Sam was in no way depicted as a run away.
Overall, God*s Will portrays a side of the coming-of-age narrative we don’t often see: the reformatory religious indoctrination. Written in an engaging, heart-breaking but equally amusing style, it is impossible for a reader not to empathise with Echan’s characters and the trauma they face. God*s Will will make you think about religion as a form of reform, will make you ponder about oppressive figures in society but most importantly, evaluate your own life and faith.
You can purchase God*s Will here!