Linda Crew, Brides of Eden (HarperCollins, 2001)

I lived in Corvallis Oregon for more than 10 years, and during that time I heard numerous stories about "The Holy Rollers" and their leader, Joshua Creffield. Creffield was a Christian "prophet" who operated in Corvallis from 1903 to 1906, stealing away the women and girls of the community like some latter-day, real life Pied Piper. His story, their stories, resemble those of the Heaven's Gate cult, the Jonestown group, or the followers of David Koresh, though on a smaller scale. Talented children's author Linda Crew, who grew up in Corvallis, has written a marvelous novel about the tragic events surrounding the growth of the cult. She calls it "a true story imagined," and it's a riveting read.

Brides of Eden is told from the perspective of Eva Mae Hurt, daughter of respected citizen O.V. "Vic" Hurt and his wife Sarah. As the book opens Eva Mae and her older sister Maud are fervent members of the local Salvation Army. Very soon, however, the charismatic and attractive Franz Edmund Creffield arrives in Corvallis and begins attending the Army meetings. He preaches with authority, and charms his way into the affections of many of the Army members, concentrating his attentions on the women and girls. Not long after, he breaks away from the Salvation Army to form his own church, taking most of the young girls and some of their mothers with him as his founding congregation. Though some of his followers are men, most notably Eva Mae and Maud's brother Frank, the church members are encouraged to meet and pray daily and most men soon fall away due to the fact that they have to work for a living. Creffield is left, as he must have intended from the beginning, with a church composed almost entirely of women.

Soon Creffield, who has changed his name to Joshua, has his followers scandalously letting their hair hang free, throwing away their corsets, wearing nothing but loose shifts, and walking about barefoot. He preaches "simplicity," getting members to donate assets to his church (known as the "Brides of Christ"), burn much of their furniture and possessions, and move with him for the summer to a remote island in the middle of the river. There he reveals that one of the women will be found pure enough to become the mother of the Second Coming of Christ.  This Second Mother will be revealed by Joshua. In the meantime he begins to preach against marriage (convenient since many of his adult followers have husbands who are beginning to object to their activities), and methodically sexually abuse the women and girls.

Eventually the men of Corvallis are fed up with Creffield and his church. He is assaulted, tarred and feathered, and run out of town. Men commit their wives, sisters, and daughters to insane asylums and homes for delinquent youth, where they are "cured" of their devotion to Joshua. Eventually the town settles down again...only to have Joshua reappear and gather his flock to him for a final tragic journey to their "new Eden" on the Oregon Coast.

Linda Crew has done an amazing job "imagining" the truth. Though Eva Mae died in 1980 and did not contribute to the novel, her voice is so strong that it seems as though Crew at times channeled rather than imagined her thoughts. Crew brings this long ago young girl to life so strongly that it is almost as though we the readers are able to step inside Eva's skin. Maud, Esther, Joshua...each person lives again through Crew's words. It's easy to see the prim and devoted Maud pursing her lips at the idea of the "lost souls" who condemn Joshua, and how easily she throws off familial love when her father begins to doubt. The picture of Joshua, with his young "brides" in their clinging shifts rolling at his feet in religious ecstasy, is so dramatic as to be nearly nauseating.

Crew presents a vivid picture of life in a small town at the turn of the last century. The excerpts of newspaper accounts are a wonderful touch, and her descriptions of Corvallis and the surrounding area are perfect.  Having lived in Oregon all of my life and in Corvallis itself for so many years, I know that the setting of the novel is absolutely accurate in detail. While readers not from Oregon should be thoroughly fascinated by Brides of Eden, for locals such as myself some scenes will ring even more chillingly true. And anyone familiar with the cult mentality, or anyone who has ever followed a charismatic leader and later discovered that they had been manipulated and deceived, should find this account eerily well done.

Brides of Eden is an outstanding novel, both a tribute to history and a cautionary tale for future potential victims. Crew is a consummate storyteller and this is a brilliantly written chronicle of a fascinating historical event.
 

[Maria Nutick]