If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.
Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.
The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?
In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s fun to read it as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.
Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. He utters a few words to her at a bus stop, and she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for and Lars’s outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a richer character.
What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, the Tribulation, which Evangelical Christian envision as hell on earth, may very well come to pass.
In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide.
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Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including Golden State and The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections, including Hum.