I remember in 1993, watching Channel One in my junior high classroom with coverage of the siege in Waco, TX. The ATF attempted to infiltrate the Branch Davidian compound, which housed a religious cult led by David Koresh. It was a terrifying standoff that ended in heavy gunfire, and eventually a large fire, resulting in around 80 lives lost. Koresh had manipulated, abused, and eventually enacted the murders of many followers who looked to him as a religious leader of a breakaway sect of Seventh-day Adventism, and put their faith in him to lead them.
It’s not surprising that religious cults are something of a fascination with many people. I am no exception, though I try to keep it to a place of respect for the few survivors of Koresh’s deceptions. My kid told me she’d brought home a book from the local library that she couldn’t put down, describing the premise as “if Handmaid’s Tale was told from Eden’s perspective” and I had to add it to my to-read right away.
Will Hill is a Londoner who, like so many of us, became interested in the story of the Branch Davidians, and specifically the Waco compound. His novel, After the Fire is in many ways the way my teenager described, taking a look at life from the lens of one cult survivor, and 17 year-old girl named Moonbeam.
Hill made the wise decision to not attempt a fictionalized retelling of the Waco cult, wanting to avoid cheapening the experience of those survivors. Instead, he created a fictional setting with obvious parallels to those who remember the tragedy of Waco.
After the Fire works both in the Before and After, beginning with the precipitating event of the plot, which is a standoff between the ATF and the members of the Lord’s Legion cult. Through Moonbeam’s point of view we get to see the fallout of being raised inside the cult, and the slow progression of healing as she tries to unravel truth from lie, including the ones she holds in secret.
Much like the Branch Davidians, Father John, the Prophet of the Lord’s Legion, takes several wives, proclaiming that he is the only man permitted to procreate. This proclamation alone brings many difficult topics to the fore, such as rape, suicide, death, child death, and child abuse. This is in no way an easy read, nor is it meant to be. The prose is beautiful in its rawness, and Moonbeam’s inner monologue sarcastic and often dark. Her struggle, her relationships, and her perception of her own guilt for the siege hurt, and I found myself wondering what ending would be best.
I won’t spoil it for you.
This is an amazing book, harsh without being for titillation, much like Handmaid’s Tale and Gather the Daughters. It hurts. It gives hope, and takes it away, and gives it again in very cruel ways. If a dark peek into the worst of humanity interests you, I suggest you add After the Fire, and Moonbeam’s story, to your reading list.