I Am Not Esther by Fleur Beale
Kirby’s always been more responsible than her mom. She makes sure the bills get paid and the groceries get bought. So when her mother, a nurse, suddenly announces that she’s taken a new job working with refugees in Africa, packs up the house, and hauls Kirby across New Zealand, Kirby is more than a little upset. Things go from bad to worse when she discovers that she is not going with her mother, and is sent off to live with relatives that she’s never met.
Her mother left her family when she was sixteen, and the details of her past are the only thing she’s never shared with Kirby. As it turns out, Kirby’s relatives are members of the fundamentalist Christian sect Children of the Faith. Kirby is informed by her uncle that her name is now Esther Pilgrim, and she is expected to behave properly (sewing, cooking, and cleaning) and help her pregnant aunt, and dress modestly (long skirt and sleeves and braided hair) and never answer back.
Kirby, as you can imagine, is none too thrilled with this. And then there are her cousins–but why does no-one want to talk about Miriam, who has just died? And why did Kirby’s mother choose now to take off? Kirby knows one thing for sure–she is not Esther. It will take the help of her oldest cousin Daniel, the school guidance counsellor, and a near call with her aunt’s health to get her out.
This novel by a New Zealand teacher is loosely based on an incident that happened with one of her student. There’s a good balance of suspense and tension here, and Kirby is a smart, likeable protagonist. The author doesn’t rely on extremes to hammer home a message, either–you can see how the rigid roles and strict rules are comforting to many members of the community. It would be easy to slip into a flat, two-dimensional portrayal of the Children of the Faith, but all the characters are a varied bunch of individuals, not just a flock of brain-washed sheep. And underlying it all is the mystery of what happened to Kirby’s mother. Why did she leave home? Why did she take off and leave Kirby with her uncle? And where is she now?