My mind was at ease when I started reading the adult book my friend (and parent of avid readers) recommended. It's called The Last Sin Eater, by Francine Rivers. Cozy on the couch as winter purred outside the bay window, I anticipated an aloof read. After all, 1850's Appalachia mentality is the farthest thing from life today in the 21st Century. Certainly, the uneducated people from centuries ago, concealed by endless peaks, can be easily veiled by the evils that surround them. But not us. We are highly educated and scientific. We live a technology dependent lifestyle. We've evolved from simple thinking. Smarter than our ancestors. But the further I read, the more I questioned my dismissive attitude. Could the average intellectual, civilized person of today not be that far removed from the deceptions among us? Are we really that much wiser?
In 18th and 19th Century Wales, families elected a person to eat bread and drink beer or wine placed on the chest of their dead loved ones believing their sins were digested or "consumed". People believed the ritual would prevent the dead from wandering the country side after death. Each village had their own sin eater who was suspected to become more and more horrible after each ceremony. When the Welsh migrated to the United States, they brought the sin eater concept with them. Many Scottish, Welsh, and English settled in the Appalacian Mountains. This ritual is the premise for this compelling story.
The story begins with a strong willed ten-year-old girl, Cadi, who holds deep guilt for her little sister's drowning accident. Her mother barely speaks to her and shows no affection since the death of her youngest child. Cadi is convinced it's her fault and her mother will never forgive her. Cadi's only solace is the relationship with her loving grandmother who shares her curious spirit. Early in the story, her grandma dies and during the funeral, Cadi makes eye contact with the sin eater (a big no-no). With her grandma gone and internalizing the guilt of her sister's death, she feels doomed and contemplates suicide. Right before her attempt, she becomes distracted by a new friend, Lilybet, who strangely appears from out of nowhere. They become fast friends and Cadi sees a reason to live again. Although it is forbidden to even look at the sin eater, Lilybet encourages Cadi to seek him in hope he'll take her sins away. The problem is, no one can see Lilybet but Cadi. Is Lilybet an imaginary friend? An angel? Or is Cadi going crazy? And who on earth would agree to be a sin eater? Turns out, he is a common man who believes his own mistakes are so terrible, that he is destined to live a life of misery. I hate to admit it, but at times I can relate.
Cadi meets the sin eater. He agrees to take her sins away but makes her promise him to do one thing in return. It's no surprise that Cadi doesn't feel different once the sin eater supposedly takes her sins away, but she has no choice than to fulfill her promise-to go to the man of God (a man who hangs by the river, speaking the Word of God), listen to what he has to say, and report it back to the sin eater. The problem is she is risking her life. The village is ruled by the authority of the Kai family. The Kai family, along with a group of people seeking a better life, migrated from Wales to the United States bringing the concept of the sin eater. If she is caught conversing with the man of God, she and her family, will be beaten by Brogan Kai (the most feared man in the valley) and his sons. However, one of Brogan's sons, Fagan, is different than his father and siblings. He believes dictatorship is wrong. Both Cadi and Fagan listen to the man of God and are so relieved to hear the good news, they accept Jesus as their Savior and become baptized. Brogan Kai kills the man of God and beats his son, Fagan, nearly to death. After days of hiding and healing, Cadi and Fagan vow to gather the people and tell their village the truth, setting them free from the evil Kai family reign once and for all. Brogan Kai tries to thwart their good news as a labyrinth of village mysteries are revealed. And what about the sad sin eater? Lilybet? The broken relationship between Cadi and her mom? You'll have to read it to find out.
So back to my original questions. In our accomplished culture, are we really that much wiser? Could it be, perhaps, that the "sin eater" of our time comes in more cunning forms? Do we hang on to what is familiar-right or wrong? A compromising relationship. A job that takes too much time away from family. A hobby that becomes an obsession. The busyness of everyday life keeping us so task oriented that we want to scream. Expectations we could never live up to. I don't know for sure but I do know one thing. I will never be the perfect mother, wife, teacher, friend, or anything. I will always and forever make mistakes. I'm a sinner. But the next time I adopt a "21 Century Savvy" attitude, I need to remember this book and realize that darkness can be anywhere. So turn the light on and read The Last Sin Eater. Your sophisticated soul will thank you for it!