Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review: "A Thousand Lives" by Julia Scheeres


From Goodreads:  In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members..... (For the full synopsis, click here)

My Thoughts:  This book was so different than what I expected in a good way.  I was expecting it to be a more broad discussion of Jim Jones, the People's Temple and the events at Jonestown but it really was a more personal look at the individual members of the Jones' church and their feelings about him and the direction the church went in after the move to Guyana.  Scheeres used papers and tapes found at Jonestown after the mass suicide for her book and these papers really shined light on the way things really were down there.  Jones was confiscating letters from relatives in the States so that his followers would think their families didn't care, he sold most of the food produced in the camp while his followers were starving and he spent most of his time in a drug induced haze which resulted in hour long sermons (aka crazed rants).  It was strange to see his descent into madness throughout the book.  I also found it interesting how many people seemed to become incredibly disillusioned with Jones and his beliefs upon arrival in Jonestown.  I have always thought that the vast majority of his people believed in what he told them and willingly killed themselves but this book made me question that.  Between the discussion of the people showcased in the book (not all of whom survived) and the tapes and papers Scheeres looked through, it seems to me that there were a lot of people down there who weren't keen on the idea of 'revolutionary suicide'.  I liked how Scheeres tried to dispel the myth that the people of Jonestown were mindless sheep who did whatever Jones told them; she sees that these were people who were betrayed by someone they believed to be infallible and wound up with no other choice.  This book was incredibly well written and easy to read for non-ficition.  4 stars.

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