Monday, April 13, 2009

Jesus Land

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres was originally published in 2005. My paperback copy has 363 pages, including an interview with Scheeres. Julia Scheeres has a website that you can visit for more information. Jesus Land is about Julia growing up in her Calvinist Christian family in Indiana in the 70s and 80s, and about the relationship she had with her adopted African-American brother, David. They were the two youngest children in the family. The first part of the memoir discusses Julia and David's experiences in an abusive home, and the second part their stay at Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. This is a painful, disturbing, engrossing, and deeply troubling memoir. I don't even know where to begin. I'm feeling heart broken and out of sorts after reading her memoir because the Christians Julia and David Scheeres encountered in their childhood weren't really Christians. For those of you who don't want to read some of my thoughts about Scheeres' book, let me tell you it is recommended, but with a caution that it is disturbing.

I'm about ten years older than the Scheeres, grew up in the Midwest (although not in Indiana), and I don't remember any of the blatant racism David experienced. However, part of my childhood was spent in cities, part in small towns. I remember African-American teachers in my schools and not giving it a second thought - they were Mr. or Mrs._____ and that's it. Since I hated moving to a small town, basically for my high school years, I understand the weirdness of a small town versus a city and the difficulty moving to a rural community. Small towns can be rather ingrown and inbreed. But, it would be a horrible mistake to label all Midwesterners who are Christians with the broad brush of "fanatic-Christian-racists". We aren't. Some are, but not all of us. While the Scheeres household was fanatic, it was also abusive with indifferent and violent parents. I really think even Scheeres herself (from reading her interview in my copy of Jesus Land) would encourage readers to not hate all Christians. I actually prefer the UK release title, Another Hour on Sunday Morning, because Jesus had nothing to do with what happened to Julia and David Sheeres.

On the other hand, perhaps many people don't realize that they carry with them some racist attitudes. A comment on a blog recently had me pondering this. It was meant to be a throwaway silly comment about kids playing "cowboys and Indians." But see, there's the rub... We have good, dear friends who are Native Americans and live on the Rez. The whole kids playing "cowboys and Indians" comment would never come into my mind, let alone out of my mouth or put into words on a blog. Do I think the blog writer is racist? I don't know. Did I find the comment hurtful? Well... yes.

Also, from my memories, I think David certainly could have reported the abuse and would have been taken seriously in many places in the Midwest at that time. I was a young adult in the late 70's and early 80's and reports of child abuse were consequential by that time. I can't speak with any certainty about Lafayette, Indiana, but any reported abuse would have been taken quite seriously in many other small towns and communities in the Midwest. Edited to add that now I'm wondering if this memoir is slightly exaggerated, and part of the perceived racism was dealing with bullies.

Synopsis from cover:
Julia Scheeres and her adopted brother, David, are sixteen years old. Julia is white. David is black. It's the mid-1980s and their family has just moved to rural Indiana, a landscape of cottonwood trees and trailer parks, and an all-encompassing racism. At home are a distant mother - more involved with her church's missionaries than with her own children - and a violent father. In this riveting memoir Julia Scheeres takes us from the Midwest to a place beyond our imagining: surrounded by natural beauty, the Escuela Caribe - a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic - is characterized by a disciplinary regime that extracts repentance from its students by any means necessary. Julia and David strive to make it through these ordeals and their tale is relayed here with startling immediacy, extreme candor, and wry humor.

"It's just after three o'clock when we hit County Road 50. The temperature has swelled past ninety and the sun scorches our backs as we swerve our bikes around pools of bubbling tar." opening

"So much for the famous 'Hoosier hospitality.' When we moved to our new house, no one stopped by with strawberry rhubarb pie or warm wishes. Our neighbors must have taken one look at David and Jerome and locked their doors - and minds - against us." pg. 8

"Neither of us uttered a word about what happened. We never do. But I can't smudge it from my mind. The farm boys' sneering red faces. The runt shaking the fence. The brown lump of spit tobacco. The anguish in David's eyes. They don't know the first thing about us; they just hate us because we're black." pg. 13

"Mother's got romantic notions about toiling the land - or mostly, about her children toiling the land. And with fifteen acres, there's always something that needs toiling with." pg. 23

"Seems we can never just be brother and sister like in other families. Our whole lives, people have felt an urge to make up special names for what we are. at Lafayette Christian, we were the 'Oreo twins' or 'Kimberly and Arnold' after the characters on Diff'rent Strokes. And while those nicknames bugged us, they were certainly preferable to what they call us at Harrison." pg. 55

"As we paint each other's nails Cinnamon Vixen, I consider telling her how bad things are at home. After she and Dan and Laura left for college, everything got worse. Mother's mood swings, Dad's violence, the name-calling at school." pg. 70


Unknown said...

Glad I'm not the only one who has some misgivings about this book - as much as I sympathise with the author's pain and trauma, it left me with a lot of unanswered questions and concluded ther was a lot of teenage perception in this book.

Lori L said...

That certainly could also be the case - many of her memories could, in fact, be based on her own youthful perceptions and lingering bitterness from issues in her childhood.

Vincent O. Moh said...

The author makes it clear that not *all* Christian families act like this.

But her point is that just because a family is religious and professes in God doesn't mean that the family is moral. For instance the mother spends so much time corresponding with mission groups that she neglects her own children.

Lori L said...

True, Vincent, Julia Scheeres made it clear in her interview in my copy of Jesus Land that she would encourage readers to not hate all Christians, but I also made it clear that Scheeres parents were fanatic, abusive,indifferent, and violent.