After the Fire by Will Hill tells the story of “Moonbeam (appointed, not actual name),” a seventeen-year-old survivor of the Lord Legion cult, which is inspired David Koresh, the Branch Davidian Compound and Waco siege in 1993.
Moonbeam is a child promised to the Lord Legion leader, Father John after her father’s death and mother’s banishment. However, when the government raids the compound the few survivors are taken to a safe location for trauma support and recovery.
Thank you to NetGalley, Edelweiss and SourceBooks for an ARC in exchange for a fair review.
The story unfolds in a before and after style, in bits and pieces, as Moonbeam talks to both a federal agent a therapist and during therapy. However, Will does this well without it becoming too confusing or tricky to follow. While Moonbeam is both unsure of her surroundings, what and whom to trust, the story walks a fine line between the “unreliable narrator,” triggered flashbacks of a brainwashed girl coming to grips with her traumatic life, her new reality and piecing it all back together in the current time.
The harrowing details from within the cult include sexual, physical and mental abuse in a system inherently meant to demean each other. Absolute loyalty to Father John and the cults core beliefs was ensured through the psychological breaking and brainwashing of every member. There are many excruciatingly vivid portrayals of abuse that are hard to read at times, but they aren’t forced or added for shock value. They are necessary and I believe a reality within this context. To dance around it or sugarcoat it would have been a disservice.
Father John is portrayed in astonishing detail as charismatic leader that plays on the fears and needs of his followers. He is a narcissistic, self-serving man that exploits those around him to fulfill his own ambitions and ego, which ultimately is his undoing.
Moonbeam’s sessions with the agent and her therapist allow insight into essential parts of the story. First, it provides a first-hand account of life within the cult. Having been there her hole life, the memories and traumas she works through give a depth of humanity to the day-to-day happenings within the Lord Legion.
Secondly, Moonbeam’s sessions with the agent and her therapist, coupled with her internal dialogue provide a greater awareness of how she grappled between what she was brainwashed to believe her entire life versus what she later questions and then steps up to fight through. Hill writes these parts and Moonbeam with a genuine authenticity that garners compassion and empathy for her character.
Moonbeam’s ability to start opening up through the want to help other, younger survivors is a realistic and soft touch by Hill. In a very bleak, often heart-breaking book Moonbeam’s work with other older survivors is a light in the dark.
After the Fire follow’s Moonbeam’s journey from cult member to victim and then to how her character changes over time as she learns to trust, first herself, and then those around her, again. It also deals with the complexity of people. Few are all good or all bad, but most are all broken in one way or another and Hill uses this vehicle to discuss redemption, compassion and forgiveness.