First, a nine-year-old girl goes missing. The people of her hometown of Boise, Idaho, comb the hills in search of her. Among them are the little girl's neighbors, Wells and Francine Davidson, a couple expecting their first child.
Next, a stranger arrives in town, under the auspices of helping to search for the missing girl; his real motivation is to locate and reunite with Francine. As children, Francine and this stranger (named Colville) had been raised side by side in a religious sect called The Activity, which is modeled after the real-life Church Universal and Triumphant (see 'Beyond the Book').
The ways in which these characters Francine and her husband, the long-lost friend, the missing girl orbit and twine around each other in Peter Rock's The Shelter Cycle is something of a feat. Their alternating perspectives add up to a novel that is poignant but avoids sentimentality; that plays with reality without tipping over into fantasy; and manages, above all, to be profoundly spooky in the most pleasurable way. The feat is that all of this is accomplished in just over 200 pages.
Colville is still entrenched in the beliefs of the religion. With his arrival, Francine decides she must reconcile with a past long buried. During the final weeks of her pregnancy, she sets out to write about growing up in The Activity. These snippets of memory are interlaced throughout the novel and function as a way for Francine to bear witness to her own past. She's not writing so that someday, someone will know about the doctrines of the religion, or why she believed or didn't believe, but so that she herself will never forget that among all the unseen and the intangible that make up an evangelical life, there were things that were real; things that happened, that you could see and smell and touch. The Activity owned a large piece of land bordering Yellowstone National Park and Francine remembers how, when her family and the members of the church watched forest fires tear through the park, that the "the peanut butter and egg salad sandwiches we'd brought all tasted like smoke." With her parents dead, and her rarefied, insular past all but left in the dust, Francine writes to prove to herself that she comes from somewhere. That she was there.
Rock's prose is simple in a way that requires considerable sophistication. It is beautiful and descriptive when it should be "Her body felt like a costume, an attachment. And then the baby moved inside. She felt it first, and then saw the skin ripple, a movement like a hand beneath a sheet" and is stilted and inflexible when being distilled through the prism of religious doctrine. One of the most interesting questions posed is this: of the things that we say, which do we believe? And which do we simply believe we believe? Rock makes clear that there is a difference with the juxtaposition of Francine's voice vs. Colville's: the indoctrinated vs. the true believer.
The tricky thing about faith, of course, is that there are very few answers. So little proof. Questions regarding the outcome, or point, of evangelical belief are often answered with some variation on, "God works in mysterious ways;" "Just wait, all will reveal itself in the end;" "If you truly believe, then all your prayers will be answered." The last twenty pages of The Shelter Cycle read like the answers to these promises. And so I tell you: as you read the novel, have faith. Believe, because it will all come together in the end. And, for this reviewer at least, it does so in the most riveting twenty pages I can remember reading in a long time. Hallelujah.
This review was originally published in May 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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