Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove

17707130When Watch How We Walk made the 2014 Scotiabank longlist, I noted it as a book I would like to read, then forgot about it. I was reminded of it a little while ago, and promptly requested it from the library. I am so glad I did, because I loved every word.

Reading about different religious groups fascinates me; the culture, the rituals and the history. This book is about a family who belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about this religious group before, so I didn’t know what exactly it is that they believe, why they believe it, and how they carry out their daily lives in accordance to it.

It was fascinating to learn about the religion, yes, but this book is also heart-breaking. It’s about two sisters growing up in a strict religious environment. The parents are doing what they think is best (although it is obvious that the mother has misgivings about some of it), and as the oldest daughter grows she begins to rebel. The younger daughter, Emily, feels severe anxiety over her sister’s behaviour; she is afraid that her sister will get left behind at Armageddon. She is equally anxious for herself, constantly fretting over what might be considered acceptable and what might not (including things we would never think about, like wearing a graphic t-shirt or making snow angels).

(Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Armageddon is the means by which God will fulfil his purpose for the Earth to be populated with happy healthy humans free of sin and death. They teach that the armies of heaven will eradicate all who oppose the kingdom of God, wiping out all wicked humans on Earth, leaving only righteous mankind. –Wikipedia)  

The story goes back and forth between Emily as a girl with her parents and sister, and older Emily after she has left home. Young Emily finds refuge in her Trixie Belden books.

She knows that no matter what strange or scary mess Trixie stumbles into, she will figure it out and fix it and make everything right again by the end.

Older Emily struggles with the events of the past as she tries to figure out how to move forward, without blame. Watch How We Walk is a story about faith, family, grief, identity and forgiveness.

I etched and etched that night until I could stop crying, until I no longer felt the burn of all our blame.

Really, it was so good. Why haven’t I heard more about this book?

A few things this book made me think about:

  • I believe in letting others believe what they want, but not to the detriment of other people; in this case, children. How can you belong to a strict religious group and make sure that your children do not feel isolated from their peers? How can you make sure that they are not feeling too much anxiety over their own behaviour and the behaviour of those they care about?
  • If the whole idea is to be free of sin and to live in peace, how can that happen if you worry all the time that you are full of it? Or, worse, having someone else tell you that you are full of sin?
  • I have read two books recently that portrayed a marriage where one partner was more devoted to their religion than the other. In both cases, it was very hard on their marriage as well on their partnership in parenting. What is the answer to this?

Jennifer LoveGrove writes briefly about her own experiences growing up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses family and tries to answer some common questions about Jehovah’s Witnesses in this article in the National Post. So interesting.

… the incentive for obedience is avoiding ostracism. If you’re “disfellowshipped,” you can have no contact whatsoever with your community, and this includes your family. They must shun you. And remember, you weren’t allowed to have meaningful contact outside of your community before then, so you’re left with no one.

This conflict – pleasing your parents and not pissing off God, versus pleasing your teacher and fitting in with classmates – creates a lot of pressure that kids internalize.

An excellent review of Watch How We Walk in the National Post.

29 thoughts on “Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove

  1. Elle says:

    Have you read or heard of A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews? In that book it’s a Mennonite community that she’s writing about, and there’s a really interesting disjunction between belief and practice: some Mennonites are pretty well integrated into the wider community, the protagonist (a teenage girl) drives her own car, etc., but the threat of shunning is still totally pervasive. It’s a fascinating book.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I’ve read that one and loved it for the reasons you point out. I’ve also read a couple others by her – so far I’ve liked all of them. Some have a stronger Mennonite component than others. Irma Voth has that cult feeling with the young protagonist making an escape.

      • Elle says:

        I’d also love to read The Flying Troutmans, and of course All My Puny Sorrows, which came out last year and had the same sort of sister-dynamic as A Complicated Kindness.

  2. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    Oooh – this sounds really good. I love books that dig into different religions, but have never read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses before. I’ve done Mormonism and Scientology…I’m adding this to my TBR!

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read about Scientology yet – that would be interesting!
      A couple of other ideas: Elle has reminded me of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (which is about a Mennonite community) and I also loved The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris (an Orthodox Jewish community in London).

  3. susanosborne55 says:

    I’d echo Elle’s comments about the Toews. Like you, I’ve wondered how it might be for a couple to deal with a situation where one is a believer and the other is not or is less devout, something that would also apply to politics for me. Hard to imagine sharing my life with someone whose fundamental beliefs and ethics were very different from my own.

  4. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    This does sound excellent, and like you, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their beliefs are central to the story. I would probably be left with very similar questions.

    • Naomi says:

      It was fascinating. Even more so, because, even though we all know about them and see them around, I hadn’t ever really given thought to what exactly it is that they believe. Now I know. 🙂

  5. Brian says:

    I too am fascinated by learning about different religions including nonchristian religions. Fiction allows you the opportunity to learn from the inside.

  6. Karen says:

    Ooh! The first thing about the book that caught my attention was the cover, and after reading your review, I’m even more interested in reading it. I haven’t read much about Jehovah’s Witnesses either, but I had a high school friend whose family was very strict about their religion, and he was so worried to come out to them because of it. I agree with you that people should be able to believe in whatever they’d like, but that it should extend to children as well. I can’t imagine how much stress and anxiety must be caused by wanting to please your parents and wanting to live your truest self. This sounds like a really, really interesting and thought-provoking book!

    • Naomi says:

      It was originally the cover that caught my eye, too, a long time ago. Sometimes you *can* judge a book by its cover. 😉
      Definitely thought-provoking!

  7. Heather says:

    One of the tasks on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge is to read a book about religion – I would have had no idea where to even start looking as religion isn’t something I go out of my way to read about. This book sounds really good though and may encourage me to read about other religions as well.

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, perfect! I’m assuming the book can be either fiction or non-fiction. There are a few other suggestions in the comments now, too, to choose from.

      • Heather says:

        Yep – fiction or non-fiction. I’d rather read fiction though as I think it would be a bit easier for me to read.
        I’ll make sure I check out the other suggestions as well, just in case I can’t get Watch How We Walk in the library.

  8. Steph says:

    I really enjoyed Watch How We Walk too. I read it before it came out but I do remember how thought-provoking it was for me. too. The questions you ask are so hard to answer because there’s so much grey area that makes for more questions the more you try to answer. 🙂 I grew up in a very strict Catholic home, and concern about how I might be isolated from my peers was not an issue—in that it didn’t matter (in fact, things were done that isolated me further). What mattered was that I be brought up “right.” So it was up to me to sort all that stuff out; thankfully, I did. I had lots of friends, participated in everything (sports, theatre, whatever), and just tried to be whatever my idea of normal was. It’s a struggle, but it’s also strengthening. I’m so glad I was a questioning, stubborn kid.

    • Naomi says:

      A lot of it has to do with the child’s personality, I’m sure. I’m glad you were able to sort it out for yourself!
      It’s true that a lot of these groups are actually *trying* to isolate their kids from their peers – which just raises more questions. 🙂
      I guess when you’re so sure that your way of doing things is going to lead to heaven/paradise on Earth, then I guess you figure the miserable life leading up to that is worth it.

  9. tanya says:

    I loved this book so much. I’m glad you liked it just as much. It was just so interesting in terms of how it looked at religion, but also just the story it told.

  10. buriedinprint says:

    You already know this is one of my favourites. Not only do I love the way she handled the theme and characters, but I thought the way that she used time and perspective, so that we were completely engaged in the story, was very skillful. I’m really looking forward to her next book, whether similar in theme or not.

    Another novel which I think would make an interesting comparison is Grace McCleen’s debut, The Land of Decoration. And I wonder if you’ve read Alison Pick’s memoir, Between Gods. The way she discusses her marriage and the dialogues about evolving belief systems (and memory and ancestral experience etc.) is quite compelling. Even for a reader who picks up fiction rather than non-fiction nine times out of ten!

    • Naomi says:

      Do you know if she has another book in the works?!
      The Land of Decoration sounds good – and like it would make a very good comparison. Just added it on GR.
      I haven’t read anything yet by Alison Pick, but I remember your review of it. I do have her novel on my shelf, Far To Go. Have you read it?

      • buriedinprint says:

        Oh, that’s right: we DID talk about this before, because I remember you asking the same thing and wanting to read it right then. *grins* No, it’s been on my list from the moment I learned of it (I quite liked her first novel), but I have yet to get there.

        I don’t know if Jennifer Love Grove has anything new due for publication, but she also writes poetry, so I would imagine she’s always scribbling, and I’m happy to read whatever and whenever. Now I should go and look for her poetry collections, right? Because there’s nothing else to read around here!

    • Naomi says:

      Then you would probably like this one, Julianne. I hope you decide to give it a try, so I can find out what you think of it!
      Don’t you hate it when other bloggers introduce you to new books that you can’t just ignore? 😉

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