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Jesus Land
Julia Scheeres
September 6, 2005
384 pages
Nonfiction, Memoir
My rating: 4 out of 5
Sinners go to: HELL. Rightchuss go to: HEAVEN. The end is neer: REPENT. This here is: JESUS LAND.

Julia Scheeres stumbles across these signs along the side of a cornfield while out biking with her adopted brother, David. It’s the mid-1980s, they’re sixteen years old and have just moved to rural Indiana, a landscape of cottonwood trees and trailer parks-and a racism neither of them is prepared for. While Julia is white, her close relationship with David, who is black, makes them both outcasts. At home, a distant mother-more involved with her church’s missionaries than with her own children-and a violent father only compound their problems. When the day comes that high-school hormones, bullying, and a deep-seated restlessness prove too much to bear, the parents send Julia and David to the Dominican Republic-to a reform school there.

In this riveting memoir, first-time author Scheeres takes us with her from the Midwest to a place beyond our imagining. Surrounded by natural beauty, the Escuela Caribe is governed by a disciplinary regime that demands its teens repent for their sins under boot-camp conditions. Julia and David’s determination to make it through with heart and soul intact is told here with immediacy, candor, sparkling humor, and not a note of malice.

I’d been meaning to read this book for a long time when I finally picked it up off my TBR shelves.  I don’t know what made me wait so long, because I had heard so many good things about the book, and it was a 2006 Alex Award Winner (there are some fabulous books on the Alex Award lists).  Well, I’m glad I finally got around to Jesus Land, because it was a darn good memoir and I’m glad I gave myself the chance to read and enjoy it.

This book isn’t the easiest to read.  Julia and David had a harsh childhood – their parents were at worst physically and emotionally abusive and at best cold and unloving.  Julia had to deal with her brother Jerome’s sexual advances and molestation from a young age, and the two of them both had to deal with blatantly cruel racism in a time when David and Jerome were the only black people living in their town.  Not only that, but their wealthy parents lived an incredibly frugal lifestyle, one that had them eating “garbage soup” on a weekly basis and wearing ratty hand-me-downs at an age when what you wear is more important than who you are.

The book definitely held my interest throughout, but the early sections were somewhat less interesting to me than I expected the book to be.  It was when Julia arrived at the reform school in the Dominican Republic that the book really got interesting.  What they were subjectd to and how they were treated at that school was just incredibly sad. Jesus Land is a testament to how much a person can handle with the support of the one person in the world who loves her unconditionally.  Some parts of this book will truly break your heart, some parts will make you laugh out loud, but most of all the book made me think of my own family and feel so grateful to have them.  Because that’s what this book really is about – Julia and David’s relationship which, against all odds, flourished in this crazy reform school environment.

The ending to this memoir took my breath away.  What was hard about it for me is that I know this is a true story – to me, the ending was like something out of a novel, yet it was reality for Julia and David.  And that knowledge was really difficult for me – the book completely changed for me once I got all the way through and read the ending.  I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop here, but I am curious about your thoughts if you’ve read this one – how did you feel about the ending, and did it influence the way you think of Julia’s story having finished it?

Anyway, I highly recommend Jesus Land. This would actually be a great book for those of you who dislike nonfiction, because it truly does have a novelish quality to it.  Scheeres’ writing is really great, and their story could just as easily have been fiction as fact (in a good way!).  I definitely suggest giving this one a try.

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