Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer
AW Teen, 2015, 288 pages
I have this recurring interest in cults. (Same thing with serial killers, but this book wasn’t about serial killers.) Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer is about fourteen-year-old Eva who, after nine years of living in the community known as the Righteous Path, is beginning to realize that perhaps her leader, Ezekiel, has it wrong. Confused about whether she wants to be one of Ezekiel’s wives as she’s been raised to be or if she wants to escape the community and the man she sees abuse her mother and friends, Eva meets Trevor on a rare trip down from the mountain who shows her that outsiders aren’t as bad as Ezekiel makes them out to be.
Down from the Mountain is pretty formulaic as far as cult novels go. It’s very similar, in many ways, to Gated. One crucial and fascinating difference with this novel, however, is that Trevor is not Eva’s love interest. There’s an argument to be made that he becomes the love interest of another important character, but even then, it’s not definite and it’s not a focus. I found this hugely refreshing and, when Eva, fourteen, was introduced to Trevor, a college student, I was concerned it would go down that path. Fortunately, it didn’t. I wish Trevor had something more — there was something terribly interesting about him that I felt Fixmer never got around to sharing. His intentions become a bit shady for a while, but it’s easy to overlook them once he shows his willingness to truly help Eva — and I think it’s the actual motivation for helping Eva that makes this feel incomplete. Though it’s perfectly reasonable to expect people to be good to each other for no reason, Trevor risks an awful lot for a random fourteen-year-old girl, especially given that he’s just a boy in college. For those of you who don’t know, I went to a women’s college and didn’t spend any time around college-aged boys (and haven’t, really, to this day), but I had a hard time believing any college age boy would go to the lengths Trevor did for Eva.
In part, I worried it might go that way because Eva acts older than her age. This might be a symptom of having been practically raised in a cult and in difficult and unusual circumstances (there are few men; any husbands that were to the women who remain left when Ezekiel declared he was to “marry” the women who were of age). Eva doesn’t act significantly older than fourteen (almost fifteen), but I kept reading her as at least sixteen. The reminder of her age is especially important as she encounters issues like interacting with the outside world independently, driving, and spending time at the library.
Another thing immensely interesting about Down from the Mountain is that it is written by a woman who worked as a psychologist, sometimes for people who had left cult communities. This gave the author a different perspective to her novel than many other authors of novels about cults can offer. Despite this, I found the characterization of Ezekiel, while creepy, not as disturbing as that of Pioneer in Gated. When similarities between the two novels kept coming up, I couldn’t help but compare them in other ways. Where Gated had a fairly large community for the cult, Down from the Mountain‘s was smaller. Unfortunately, I felt this took away a lot of the urgency of the conflict. A larger community would have increased the sense of conflict.
As another central character, Rachel was in many ways more interesting than Eva. Older, and having decided to join the cult for herself rather than being brought into it by a parent, Rachel’s arc is infinitely more interesting to me. She, like Eva, often seemed older than her eighteen years, and took on the role of an older sister to Eva.
For my few complaints about the novel, Fixmer put together an interesting, if formulaic, narrative. The ending will, in part, surprise you — at least a little. I really appreciated Fixmer’s unwillingness to turn away from adult themes, both clinical and otherwise in nature, despite the young age of her character and, presumably, the bulk of her audience. With different cultural expectations within the cult, the issue of menstruation becomes enormously fascinating and one that is revisited throughout the novel, as is the topics of pregnancy and birth.
If you’re looking for a standalone read on cults, this isn’t a bad one. While Gated on its own was good, you might feel compelled to pick up Gated‘s sequel, Astray, which didn’t stand up to the quality of its predecessor. Though a bit back-and-forth with the character development, Eva eventually reaches a clear arc of growth. The novel lends plenty for discussion and would even make an excellent choice for a book club.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤