Over the past two weeks, I’ve made my way through Sadie Hoagland’s Strange Children. Only a few chapters in, I realized that this book was worthy of a post-read analysis. Here, I will be sharing some of my thoughts and critiques of the book — no spoilers included.
The very structure of the book is unique and highly personable. Hoagland formed her novel through strategic character narratives, which are all written within the setting of a polygamist convent — and the damned world beyond it. The very description of the book is jarring, reading, “In a polygamist commune in the desert, a fourteen-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl fall in love and consummate that love, breaking religious law. They are caught, and a year later, she gives birth to his father’s child while the boy commits murder four hundred miles away—a crime that will slowly unravel the community.” At first glance, it is a cultish and borderline absurd repackaged Romeo and Juliet type spiel. The description truly does not do it any favors. Upon a few flips through the actual text, though, Hoagland’s writing reveals itself to be quite alluring and much more structurally sound. You can judge this book by its pretty cover, but for the sake of your own literary interest, do not be scared away by the juvenile description.
The second page of the book is a hint of the title, quoting Psalm 144: Send thine hand from above; rid me, and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of strange children. For me, a good opening quote is a note to return back to, and later analyze. And for a book like this, which at times verged on illegible, any grounding point is helpful to have. Each ‘chapter’ was written from a different character’s perspective, which were compiled into five distinct sections. I, personally, found this format perfect for the subject matter, as it provided structure and a coherent timeline. Within these five sections, characters such as Annalue, Emma, Mercy Ann, Manti, Levi and Jeremiah unraveled the story of Redfield, their desert home. Intermingled in their spiritual, twang-ridden narrative was the voice of a vengeful ‘spirit’ — if you’d care to call her that — who had been murdered by a banished member of their community. Out of this mix, I found the spirit, Emma and Annalue’s narratives to be the most redeeming, as they harbored such calibrated conviction and distinctions of personhood. For this, I must say that Hoagland’s ability to create unique and differentiable character profiles from a variety of perspectives is phenomenal.
And indeed, their narratives and perspectives did vary. While the male characters all seemed predispositinsed to share the same sad, questionable existence within their community, the female characters were remarkably content for their circumstances. Arguably, no one can truly be at peace within an imposed religious cult that marries-off children into polygamist households — but I found it interesting how the disparity I witnessed due to the varying genders of our narrators was not at all textbook. It was the men who were banished and murdered, who seemed the most angsty and ready to leave. The three male narrators — Levi, Manti and Jeremiah — gave us a look at how bleak the male experience within their community was. And truly, it was sad. In addition, their narratives seemed to function as the carriers of the text, providing more of the “…and then this happened…” type of information, which I appreciated. Really, I appreciated any lucid and comprehendible moment in this book. On the other hand, the female narrators gave the book the bite and character it needed to keep me engaged. Annalue and Emma, especially, were both so undoubtably unhinged that their narrations alone could have carried the story. And honestly, I would’ve loved that version. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the trials and tribulations of Manti (who I do prefer out of the three, however bewildering he was) or Levi’s existence, but they were certifiably boring in comparison to the emotion and vividness the female characters provided.
The character narrations were, however, unified by one common flaw. The impression I received upon reading (and re-reading) the passages was that this book was meant to be read as if the characters were speaking or writing to you. Due to the personable nature of this book, and the demographic of the characters, it was difficult to follow. Their narrations were littered with run-on sentences and a dialect that was so clearly isolated to their community, in addition to their preachy spiels that rambled on endlessly. Of course, this is all a given, due to the subject matter of the book. Regardless, there were still times I had to put the book down and take a break, because if I had to read one more run-on sentence, I was actually going to combust. Nonetheless, Hoagland did not fail to immerse me in her world — however grammatically devoid.
In addition, I grappled to understand some of the more religious and cultural aspects of the book, as it was clear that this world still had parts of it that were unknown, or even misinterpreted by our narrators. As the book reached its end, I found the characters spiraling into an increasingly more absurd existence. This is understandable given the theme, and their very existence within a reserved, isolated cult community. But even then, it was difficult to decode their spiels. The vengeful spirit character, too, never seemed to truly clarify herself, or what exactly her motives were. Revenge, for her, seemed too simple. The ending, all around, was not my favorite. It didn’t seem to provide any real closure, and realistically, I do not anticipate any sort of a sequel. I think that this book, for what it is, is a decent stand-alone piece.
All in all, the book is worth reading. I truly enjoyed the poetic, vivid narration style Hoagland invoked in her characters. However, if you’d like a smooth, easy read, this may not be the book for you.