Title: Down from the Mountain
Author: Elizabeth Fixmer
Length: 276 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Eva lives on an isolated religious compound near Boulder, Colorado. She is a member of Righteous Path, a tiny cult that her mother joined when she was just five. Now fourteen, she is considered an “adult” by the Path’s charismatic but temperamental leader, Ezekiel. He puts Eva in charge of jewelry-making, their only source of income. When she accompanies one of Ezekiel’s numerous wives to Boulder to sell her wares, she is exposed to the outside world for the first time in a decade. She soon begins remembering what she was supposed to forget and questioning everything she has been taught—all while life on the compound becomes ever-more dangerous.
I devoured this book. I rarely read things in such a short sitting anymore. In this one, though, the writing was very readable and the first-person, present-tense narration drove everything forward (even if it felt a bit rushed). I found that I just had to discover what happened to Eva and her “family” as soon as I could.
And I wasn’t disappointed exactly. The ending was satisfying and handled well. Unlike other books I’ve read this year, it takes a realistic approach to trauma, abuse, and their psychological effects. Elizabeth Fixmer, a therapist, knows that love and hugs are not all it takes to treat those effects, even long-term.
That said, it left me a little wanting and left me puzzling over the book as a whole.
I find cults fascinating, if terrifying. I’ve never been a particularly religious person, so I don’t fully understand how someone could fall under the spell of someone like Jim Jones—people who with hindsight were power-hungry, egomaniacal charlatans—in the name of God. Fixmer did a good job recreating the circumstances here—the manipulation and exploitation of the leader and the combination of fear, genuine religious belief, and often affection for the leader on the parts of the followers.
To Fixmer’s credit, her heroine Eva has a distinct voice. Though I often find YA authors’ dialogue and/or narration stilted and unrealistic, here it worked, at least when coming from a Path member. However, her voice—and therefore the prose—is rather simplistic, especially coming from a girl as bright as Eva is supposed to be.
Sometimes, her descriptions were quite lovely nonetheless:
I am floating somewhere beneath Ezekiel’s smile and above the congregation. I am watching the amber glow of the three candles twinkling on the altar and noticing the shadows cast over Ezekiel, who stands just an inch outside the light.
As this was a sort of coming-of-age story, Eva had some very relatable moments as well, such as when she has to drive a car for the first time up steep and icy mountain slopes to get home. Anyone who’s ever learned to drive knows how terrifying it is, especially in a scenario like that. Despite (or because of?) the simple writing, her fear and pain were often visceral as well.
I cared about most of the other characters to a certain extent, though sometimes I wanted to shake them—especially Eva’s mother—and shout, “Wake up!” That’s the scary things about cults, of course. Most members never do.
I have some other issues. The simplicity of the writing reflects the simplicity of the whole story, of the relationships between characters [namely between Eva and others], and of the characters themselves. For instance, I never really felt like Jacob and Annie were Eva’s best friends or felt the “special” bond between Eva and her mother, because Eva tells readers about these things instead of showing them.
Overall, I think the book could have benefitted from about a hundred extra pages, a slower pace, and a deeper backstory.
And as sympathetic as she was, I had a few problems with Eva, too. I understand what it’s like to love a book as much as she loves The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but her constant references to it made Ms. Fixmer seem a bit lazy and unoriginal. Eva also claims to be quite intelligent despite her lack of formal education (hardly impossible, of course) and is shown to be innovative and good at problem-solving—yet she’s painfully naïve. While it makes sense for her to be poor at socializing, given her circumstances and how few peers she has on the compound, things that are obvious to the reader through her eyes go completely over her head.
Down from the Mountain could have been a good character study of Eva, and it certainly has the bones of one, but it falls short. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking, fast-paced adventure story, and it succeeds there, but unfortunately falls short in other ways.
In short, it’s a solid three-star book; neither great nor mediocre.