In the backwoods of Missouri, there’s a barbed-wire encampment surrounded by miles of wilderness in every direction. If the cottonmouth snakes don’t kill you, the old-timer with a 12 gauge shotgun will if you cross his invisible boundary line and drift into his property. So don’t even think about trying to escape Mount Zion, a local Baptist boarding school for troubled teens. Just keep your head down, do as you’re told, and don’t step out of line, or you’ll end up like the new kid who gets his nose broken on day one for saying a cuss word.
Welcome to the world of God*s Will, the novel by first-time author Matthew John Echan, whose prose reads as if Salinger and Vonnegut had a love child with Cormac McCarthy. Don’t ask me how, just roll with it.
Most troubling is the realization that Echan’s novel is based on his own real-life experiences as a young boy who endured inhumane treatment at a Christian indoctrination camp for at-risk youth—just like the one in God*s Will. Perhaps that’s why the details are so vivid, and the characters are so real. They live and breathe and follow you around long after you’ve closed the book and turned out the lights.
Writing a review for a book like God*s Will is difficult. To be quite blunt, there’s an ineffable sense of foreboding and dread that drenches every page as the protagonist’s innocence is slowly eroded by degrees, like peeling dead skin off a sunburn one layer at a time. You know you shouldn’t keep scratching at that little white fold of epidermis, but you can’t help it. And pretty soon, you’re lifting another sheet of wispy skin cells off your arm and listening for the sound it makes as you keep the skin taught.
That’s what reading God*s Will was like for me. I was turning another page to see how the former-drill-sergeant-turned-camp-leader was going to psychologically crush these young boys and girls, whose only crime was smoking a cigarette or using the word “crap” instead of “junk.” Or to find out whether or not the new kid was going to escape during the night or get caught trying to clear the fence.
Parents who send their kids to camps like this have no idea what really goes on behind those razor wire fences. And that’s by design, of course. The camp directors assure the parents that Johnny is making progress and that Suzy is so close to a breakthrough. If they could just pay for one more year, the transformation would be nearly complete, and so, of course, Mom and Dad fork over more money. But what they don’t realize is that their child is being humiliated daily by the other kids and constantly subject to random acts of violence from both their peers and the adult leaders. Whatever they love is brutally crushed to death in front of them. Whatever hopes they have are gleefully choked out before breakfast. There is no escape. There is no free will. You are a slave—and you will die a slave—unless you follow the rules and become what we want to mold you into.
What’s sad is that the thing these people want to mold them into is a Christian, but these brutal tactics are as far from Christ as anyone could imagine. When “conversion” is exacted at the end of a stick, or the breaking of the spirit, what’s left isn’t as much a transformation of the heart as it is the warping of a soul.
So, yes, this book is heartbreaking and troubling at times. But the darkness is also beautifully dappled with laughter and speckled with moments of exquisite tenderness. The bond between these kids is forged in fire. They would die for one another, and yet at the turn of a leaf, they will beat each other senseless over the slightest infraction. The characters are flawed, they are funny, and they are painfully, tragically, very real.
If you’re looking for a book that makes you feel like you’re watching a Netflix documentary about the dark underbelly of Christian reform camps, and at the same time makes you laugh out loud, cry out in despair, and cheer for the kids who make a run for it, then I can’t think of a better book to spend your summer with than this one.
Just do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve got your emotional support animal nearby when you near those last few pages of the final chapter because, trust me, you’re going to need it.
Watch the book trailer and learn more HERE>
Keith Giles and his wife, Wendy, work with Peace Catalyst International to help build relationships between Christians and Muslims in El Paso, TX. Keith was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church over a decade ago to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today he is the author of several best-selling books, including “Jesus Unexpected: Ending The End Times To Become The Second Coming” which is available now on Amazon.
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