Three women—a mother, Amaranth, and her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow—flee a burning church, each with her own desires and secrets. Behind them lay the ruins of a polygamous cult led by Zachariah, Amaranth’s husband and the girls’ father; ahead of them stretches the whole of the modern America that the sisters have never seen and the struggling Oklahoma farm of a man named Bradley. Thus begins Peggy Riley’s novel, Amity & Sorrow. From that inciting incident, two narratives unspool—the story of the now broken utopia runs backwards to its happier beginning as the tale of the three women’s escape plunges mercilessly forward.
At either end of that journey wait two very different men and two very different families: the charismatic Zachariah and his 49 other wives on the one side and Bradley with his lost wife, elderly father and the young man he raised on the other. Despite the shared blood and history that ties Amaranth and her two daughters together, they must each decide for herself which life she prefers. “I was looking at the notion of how families are made and how they work and how they stay together or don’t,” Riley says. “How do you get a family? And if you choose a family, is it as valid as the one that you make yourself? Is it more valid because you’ve chosen it or is it less likely to hold together because it’s made through choice?”
A fourth question, just as vital to the story: how do faith and tradition limit those choices? The way in which history and politics and religion proscribe women’s choices is a favorite subject for Riley. Amity & Sorrow is her first novel, but in her former career as a playwright, she grappled with many of the same themes that course through the new book. One play, Galileo, told the story of Galileo’s two daughters who were cloistered against their wills. “It was really a play,” she says, “about how we believe in things and why we believe in things and when what you believe in gets in the way of your being a family or gets in the way of what you want.”
Faith poses many of the same problems in Amity & Sorrow, but unlike Catholicism, the religion here is fictional. Riley drew on a combination of the American tradition of utopian communes, Mormon history—particularly Joseph Smith’s relationship with his first wife and the challenges his polygamy must have posed for her—and the death cults of the 70s. “I wanted to make…a new cult that would address these modern fears that we have of the government, of the end of the world, of foreigners, of terrorists, but that would be drawn from this older American sense that…if we’re allowed to go away and be among ourselves that we can make something perfect,” she says.
That sense of promise is also what makes the transition to modern life so difficult for Amity and Sorrow. Though they’re excited by many of the trappings of modern life—junk food proves particularly appealing—they also miss the ecstatic worship of the cult. As time goes on, Amity breaks more and more of the rules she grew up with, but she finds the uncertainty of her new life disorienting as well as freeing. She is distraught at missing out on the rituals that celebrated Sorrow’s transition to adulthood, particularly the ritual dance in which the women spin in circles with their long skirts flying out around them.
Sorrow’s conflict is more complicated. As the older sister, she was far more involved in the religious life of the commune and feels betrayed by her mother for taking them away from it. “She’s really caught in the loop of her own drama, her own history, her own sense of her own importance, and how she feels responsible for the whole world coming apart,” Riley says. This stubbornness and zealotry make Sorrow difficult to like, but she becomes an increasingly tragic figure as the extent of both her trauma and her complicity become clear.
Ultimately, though, Amity & Sorrow is about hope. The characters struggle with their history and their past choices, but they also strive to create new communities and make better decisions. “Americans are tremendous optimists,” Riley says. “We forget that things fall apart and we’re convinced that this time we can do it right.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in New York. You can find her on Twitter @lexeh.