by Rivers Solomon
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 16, 2021
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The most positive thing I can say about Rivers Solomon's Sorrowland is that it is completely unpredictable. It helped that I did not seek out any information about it before hand, I just saw their name and that an ARC was available from Edelweiss. It will be published in about three weeks, May 4, and I recommend you seek it out. Of course, being unpredictable can also be a detriment at times, if the plot doesn't develop in the way one might like. It could be described as a gothic thriller, or horror, fantasy, science fiction, a mystery, or an alternate history conspiracy theory. Or all those wrapped into one. If I started listing trigger warnings it would be a very long list. It's full of trauma and violence; against women, against LGBTQIA+, against people of color, or anyone who doesn't conform to a narrow code of conduct, both within the cult compound Vern flees, and towards that cult from the outside world.
Vern is fifteen years old, and seven months pregnant, when they run away from an abusive husband and negligent mother. Home had been within the secluded Blessed Acres of Cain, aka Cainland, an all Black religious community that had been established by former Black Panthers and other political groups in the mid-1960s. At one time it had been described as a paradise, an oasis for Blacks to forge their own path, to determine their own future. They grew most of their own food, manufactured their own clothing, and simple tools. They stressed education, discipline, and hygiene. They even allowed some to leave the compound for higher education or vocational training. Unfortunately, what began as a communal effort without specific leaders, eventually morphed into a strict religious sect with the expulsion of some members and the rise of the Reverend Eamon Fields, whose position was later assumed by his son Sherman, Vern's husband. Bizarre rituals ensued, including "Ascensions," literal near-drownings which were supposed to drive out evil spirits; mysterious medical procedures and "vitamin" injections; and being strapped into bed at night to prohibit leaving the compound.
Vern, an albino, gives birth to twins shortly after escaping; the first born has very dark skin, the other is albino. Without even checking on their gender, they are given the names Howling and Feral. They live in the woods for nearly four years on their own, and with the exception of one other person, they had no other human contact during that time. One remarkable thing about that is Vern has a severe vision problem, so is most active at night. Feral shares that condition. Even before the escape, Vern had been experiencing weird phenomena they describe as "hauntings." They assume those who appear are ghosts, but sometimes they interact as if alive and aware of their surroundings. Due to their vision problem, Vern may see another person or animal and mistake them for one of the hauntings. Another puzzling thing is Vern frequently exhibits feats of strength and endurance, such as walking through the woods for ten days, kids in tow, without stopping for rest or food. They eventually decide they must leave the woods for the sake of the children's future, especially if medical attention is ever needed. Vern sets out to find their childhood friend, Lucy, who had left the compound several years earlier.
What ensues is a harrowing journey cross-country, with occassional allies, but pursuit never far behind. What if the hauntings connect Vern to Cainland, and in turn connect to their pursuers? What if all the strange rituals at Cainland had an ulterior motive? Could the near drownings, the injections, been a nefarious plot to induce physical changes in the victims? If so, who were the perpetrators, the cult leaders, or someone from without? This made me think of recent reports that a high percentage of Blacks are skeptical of the Covid vaccine, because they know of previous occasions in which Blacks and indigenous peoples have been used for secretive experiments, such as the Tuskeegee Institute syphilis study. Vern is torn between breaking away from their past and going back to aid those left behind. Based on the ending, I can't say if a follow-up story will ever be written, or needed, but it's clear the major plot arc of Cainland has concluded. It might can be rebuilt, or else Vern will leave it behind for good the next time.
Rivers Solomon identifies as non-binary, and uses they/them pronouns. I have used the same for Vern. One of the reasons Vern's husband had abused them is he accused Vern of being lesbian, but although not specifically spelled out, it is also implied that Vern is intersex. They have sexual relationships with two women, the second developing into true compassion, perhaps even love. Vern doesn't consider themselves any one specific thing, in fact seems to be indifferent to the concept of gender or sexual orientation. Considering all the other changes their body is going through, that view is understandable. Recommended.
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