With Leaving Gilead, I returned to where my interest in religion began. My first book, Counting the days to Armageddon (James Clarke & Co, 1996) was an academic study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. With the insights I gained in the research for it, and my experience of growing up in that movement, it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later life as an escapee from a fringe religion would feature in one of my novels.
So is the Fellowship of Gilead, the fictional religious group portrayed in Leaving Gilead, meant to be the same sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Well, yes and no. There are lots of similarities, of course, but there are also many differences. And this is important because the problems which can arise from involvement in high-demand authoritarian groups are by no means unique to one group. Indeed, there are some expressions of belief and discipleship within the mainstream which can also lead to personal difficulties, especially when individuals move away from the core beliefs of their group.
What is Leaving Gilead about? It’s a romance really with elements of the saga and the mystery story woven into it. It begins when young Tom Sparrow falls in love with Susan Ridley. Nothing will come of it, warns his dad, because her family’s religion disapproves of all outsiders. Against the odds their friendship develops until the time when Tom is all set to go to university and Susan is free at last to escape from her family’s religion and move to Manchester to be near Tom. What stopped her? Why is she no longer around?
Thirty years later when Tom is contemplating a change of career, the Ridley’s old house, tucked away in the forest, has come up for sale. It is just what he wants – though he isn’t sure about Melanie, a young woman who also has an interest in the house. Otherwise it is perfect for his plans for a new life back where he has his roots. As he prepares to move in he discovers something hidden away in an outbuilding and at last he begins to learn the truth of what happened all those years before.
Leaving Gilead is the story of two women’s struggles to build new lives after growing up in a religion that promotes irrational belief and conformity with arbitrary rules above above personal development.
Here’s a snippet:
‘There’s some post for you,’ said his dad as soon as he got into the house. ‘I’ll get it for you.’ He followed behind as Tom went to take his case up to his room. ‘Here you are, then,’ he said, thrusting the letters at him as soon as Tom had put his case on the bed.
There were a couple of inconsequential-looking items which he dropped on top of his case. Then a hand-written envelope. From Susan. He put it with the others to read when his dad had gone.
‘And these two. Right, well, here goes.’ He tore the envelope open. ‘This’ll be exam results. ‘Yes. Oh wow, I’ve done it, Dad. I’ve passed. Distinction.’
‘Well done, lad. Well done. And the other?’
‘Yes, right.’ He looked at the envelope. University of Manchester. ‘Okay let’s see what… Right. Just confirming my place. And I’ve got a room in Gaskell House.’
‘That’s good, Tom. I’m really pleased for you.’ And then, as he left the room, he added, ‘Your mother would be proud of you, Tom. Real proud.’ As soon as he had gone, Tom opened Susan’s letter.
Dear Tom, I love you, I love you, I love you. I’ve missed you so much while you’ve been away. So much looking forward to seeing you on Saturday. My family are being very silly and awkward. The short of it is that they want me to go and work at the yard. It’s pointless, I know it is because there just won’t be enough work for me, but it’s so that they can keep an eye on me. The thing is, I have to go along with it for now – otherwise I would have been thrown out there and then and been sleeping in the station waiting room. If all goes well it will only be for a few days – interview this week – but the trouble is I have a dreadful feeling that something will go wrong.
Can’t be much longer before you move to Manchester. Hopefully I’ll not be very far behind you and then all this sneaking around my family will be in the past.
Love you, Tom. Lots and lots. I’ll hug my pillow for you. Susan xxx.
He lay back on his bed. Hang on there, Susan, my love. Just a little while and you’ll be through it – we’ll be through it. She’d had an interview. What job was that? Had she maybe heard already from the firm? He day-dreamed her into a flat just round the corner from Gaskell House and a super job and a day-release place for Higher National Certificate. Just hang on there, Susan, my love.
You can get it here: Leaving Gilead