Amity and Sorry
by Peggy Riley
“Two sisters sit, side by side, in the backseat of an old car. Amity and Sorrow. Their hands are hot and
close together. A strip of white fabric loops between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist.” And with those first lines, I’m hooked. The girls’ mother, Amaranth, is running away from her polygamist husband, the Father. As in, “God, the Father.” (Can you say “megalomaniac”?) Amaranth is wife #1 of fifty. That’s right–fifty women with their infants and children, living off the grid on a secluded compound.
My biggest surprise, though, came when it was soon clear that the sisters weren’t six and eight, which was the age I filled in for them. These sisters with the evocative Quaker-like names were twelve and sixteen–and that gave the novel a whole different spin.
Amaranth barely stops along her escape route. Not, at least, until she wrecks the car near the down-on-their-luck Bradley farm in Oklahoma. Forced to stay put for however long, Amaranth is at first an automaton, the rules from her previous life still ringing in her ears: fields are forbidden! enter no man’s house! We watch as Amaranth slowly discards those rules, if only to survive. Twelve-year-old Amity, though skittish of life on the outside, has an easier time throwing off the strictures of her old life. But Sorrow’s scars run deeper than anyone suspects.
Author Peggy Riley’s portrayal of the shattered minds of these women is penetrating. Amaranth, quite rightly, exhibits some of the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. The girls are totally uneducated and unschooled, unable to read or write, ignorant of television and libraries and computers; Amity doesn’t even know from whence they came–she has never seen a map, doesn’t know the meaning of “Utah” or “Oklahoma”. Their total naivete is jaw-dropping.
Aside from the preacher Father (Riley offers him neither excuse, nor absolution), the men in the novel are treated with sympathy. Bradley also knows loss and heartache. Dust, the half-breed Bradley adopted, lives with the isolation of bigotry. Old man Bradley is trapped by age and infirmity in his bedroom.
But then every character is trapped in Amity and Sorrow, some literally for a time, but then metaphorically. And I’m reminded of the title of a collection of Doris Lessing’s essays, The Prisons We Choose To Live Inside. The question then becomes, who will escape?
All great journeys are made in faith. The pilgrim over dark seas, the immigrant to new lands, the pioneer to a salt-baked lake. Faith calls the native to the spirit walk, the vision quest, but Amananth can only hope, in retrospect, that hers is a great journey.