Amy Christine Parker’s novel Gated was not at all what YA Guy expected.
But that’s not a bad thing.
From the pre-publication notices, I somehow got the idea that Gated was science fiction, a post-apocalyptic novel about a cult that turned out to be right about the end of the world. I don’t know why I got that idea. Probably just because I like sci-fi.
But boy, was I wrong. And I’m glad I was.
Gated could certainly be classified as a dystopia. But far from being set in some distant time or place, Parker’s novel tells the all-too-real story of a contemporary doomsday cult. Convinced by their leader, a man who calls himself Pioneer, that the world’s rotation will soon reverse and kill all but the faithful, the cult has constructed a gated community and an underground silo where they plan to wait out the world’s destruction. But Parker’s narrator, seventeen-year-old Lyla Hamilton, has doubts about the community she joined as a child: doubts about her ability to kill non-believers as Pioneer instructs, doubts about the boy Pioneer has chosen as her future husband, doubts about giving up on the world and retreating underground. When she meets a boy from outside the community, her doubts escalate and bring her into direct conflict with her family, her community, and its messianic leader.
Reviews I’ve read of Gated tend to focus on the personality of Pioneer, and Parker has indeed drawn a masterful portrait of a modern-day Jim Jones or David Koresh: a man who preys on the vulnerable to fulfill his own need for mastery. But to me, the psychology of Pioneer’s followers was every bit as interesting. In particular, I found myself drawn to the depiction of Lyla’s mother, whose other daughter was snatched as a child and who longs for the safety she believes Pioneer’s community provides. I can understand megalomaniacs like Jones, Koresh, and countless other preachers and politicians, but I sometimes have a hard time understanding those who blindly follow them. By exploring the motivations of Pioneer’s disciples, Parker renders a powerful image of human frailty and despair.
And then there’s Lyla herself, who simultaneously loves and fears Pioneer and his community, who embraces his apocalyptic visions but loathes the sacrifices they entail, who finds herself battling her mother’s desire for security if it comes at the cost of truly living. It’s a complex characterization, and one that could easily have become exaggerated and unbelievable--but Parker makes Lyla’s conflicts utterly convincing. Trapped outside the community’s gates when she and her friends decide to break curfew, Lyla reflects: “it’s this realization--that we are all one panicked moment away from cutting the bonds that tie us--that chills me to the bone.” The power of those bonds--bonds of family, bonds of faith, bonds of fear--to inspire, to protect, and at the same time to cripple is the true subject of Gated, and Parker’s unsparing portrait of her teen heroine’s awakening to this reality makes Gated as chilling as any fantasized dystopia.