In Peaches, California, a devastating drought has replaced lush greenery with dry, cracked earth. It's where 14-year-old Lacey May lives with her alcoholic mother at the beginning of Godshot, a stunning debut novel by Chelsea Bieker.
Out of desperation, the town's residents have turned to Pastor Vern, a charismatic religious zealot who says he can lead them away from sin and into a new world where their faith is rewarded with water. To do this, they're given different "assignments," and are warned never to speak of their assignments to anyone else.
Soon enough, Lacey May's mother is exiled from the community and runs off with the latest in a string of bad boyfriends. Abandoned and distraught, Lacey May moves in with her grandmother Cherry, a taxidermy-obsessed widow who also lives in Peaches, and is hopelessly devoted to Pastor Vern. As Lacey May continues to endure the increasingly appalling acts of men, she begins to uncover Pastor Vern’s shocking plan to bring fertility back to the land, she decides to find her mother, no matter what it takes.
Amidst the trauma and near-constant struggle, however, are hints of dark humor, like when church congregants are baptized using soda. "We filled an abandoned bathtub behind the church with liters of Check Mate Cola and one by one he held us under just long enough for the lungs to burn, for fearful desperation to set in, and we came up gasping and sticky, his face the first face we saw, a God to us...There was no wasting water, and so the soda would do. It was such a small sacrifice, to use soda instead of water, that I almost mistook it for a thrill."
While Godshot's supporting characters are often compelling—particularly the mother-daughter duo Daisy and Florin, who run a phone sex operation and are among Lacey May's only supporters on her quest to find her mother—the relationship between Lacey May and her mother makes up the book's core. It's a relationship that repeatedly brings up the question of how you can continue to love someone who has done nothing but hurt you. (Interestingly, Bieker told NPR that her own mother left when she was nine years old.) Lacey May is an endlessly sympathetic character; naive at times and street smart at others. She observes, "Whatever’s happened to you can either make you beautiful, or it will ruin you forever. You decide...I mean, beautiful. I mean, deep and changed. Affected. Wise. When you see a woman like that, you know. She’s beautiful because of her undoing. Beautiful because she rebirthed herself from ashes."
Despite cringing at her constant betrayals of her daughter, readers will also sympathize with how Lacey May's mother's oppression at the hands of religion and of the patriarchy has made her who she is, so we can understand why Lacey May is able to see past her failings time and time again.
As for the question of reading something so dark during an uncertain time when all you want to do is binge-watch Love Is Blind? Bieker told NPR, "I believe that fiction asks us to turn toward the difficult parts in our own lives and our own selves to try to find some sort of grace...Art can help me ask the difficult questions of myself and then try to answer them."
With traces of Janet Fitch's White Oleander and Emma Cline's The Girls, Godshot is an unflinching examination of the grit and perseverance of a protagonist you won't soon forget.