Really, doesn't every teenager feel as though they're shaking off a lifelong brainwashing campaign? I'm not even talking about the rebellious teenagers who fall in love with a philosophy that's diametrically opposed to their upbringing, be it punk or anarchy or Ayn Rand. Most teenagers experience a moment where they finally notice a glaring inconsistency in some belief they've always taken for granted. It's the moment when the whole world comes crashing down around you like a shoddy set at a school play. Karen Finneyfrock's new young-adult novel, Starbird Murphy and the World Outside (Viking, $17.99), is a story about that experience.
"Outsiders will use any excuse to try to demoralize us," a young woman named Starbird Murphy explains to us early in the book. Why do outsiders care so much? "Their greed-driven, capitalist system is threatened by our commitment to shared property." Starbird belongs to a hippie cult based on a farm outside Seattle. (How hippie are they? They're so hippie that the founder of the cult named himself EARTH. Yes, in all caps.) Members of the Free Family Farm don't believe in property—the children are raised communally—and most members aren't even allowed to handle money, for fear it will corrupt them by osmosis. At the beginning of the book, Starbird, who describes herself as a true believer, is sent to work at a restaurant run by the Family in Seattle, and she fears what will happen to her belief system at the more permissive outpost, where she'll be required to attend a public high school for the first time in her life.
It's clear Finneyfrock has done her homework. The narrative is obviously buttressed with intensive research into cults and communes, and the Family's history is convincing and detailed. Here's Starbird explaining the logic behind the Family's naming conventions:
If you are introduced to a Family member with a name from the Bible, like Ephraim, then you know that person joined the Family in the early days, when the Cosmos instructed EARTH to name our first babies Adam and Eve. If a member is called something reminiscent of a Native American name, like Eagle Feather, he was born or joined the Family during the short time when EARTH studied Native shamanism in the early 1980s. If your name has a cosmic combination like mine, Starbird, which includes some aspect of the heavens, like a comet, star, or asteroid, and something from the Earth, then you would mostly likely be under nineteen, born in the newest cycle of the Family, or one of the more recent joiners.
Finneyfrock clearly delineates the difference between the farm, where the true believers live, and the community centered on the restaurant, where members of the Family have a clearer, more cynical understanding that the Family's fortunes are on the decline. EARTH has been missing for years, and the momentum that has sustained the Family is slowly winding down. The Family's culture isn't bombastic—there are no threats of mass suicide here—and some aspects of the life on the farm sound genuinely appealing.
Starbird's awakening to the outside world isn't dramatic; no masked deprogrammers kidnap her under the cloak of darkness. Instead, she recognizes that the simple truths she always took for granted turned out to be lies, or gross generalizations. Soon, she's asking a teacher a hypothetical question about how a person can tell if she—uh, or he—can tell if they've been brainwashed.
It would have been an easy choice to turn the cult's founder into a villain to be uncovered as a malevolent charlatan and tossed into jail at the end of the book, but Finneyfrock wisely avoids simple moral stances. Starbird Murphy is a story about waking up to the fact that the people around you have their own agendas and deciding how much of yourself you're willing to share with the world. It's not a story about the decimation of faith—instead, it's about the deepening of faith, as told by a brave girl who learns how to interact with the world in a more mature, more nuanced way. In other words, it's about growing up gracefully.