In Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel Godshot, fourteen-year-old narrator Lacey May is, unbeknownst to herself, a devout member of a cult in Peaches, California. Peaches, a town once rich in agricultural production, is now an environmental wasteland, suffering from drought, with people sufficing on soda rather than running water. Godshot is a story about religious fanaticism, mother loss, a stolen childhood, and the search for salvation. Bieker deftly builds the world of Lacey May, who is desperate for some sense of purpose in her small town.
Lacey May lives with her mother, who is an alcoholic. Since joining the church of Pastor Vern, though, the beer bottles have disappeared, and the questionable men coming in and out of their lives are no more. But eventually, while on a mysterious “assignment” for Pastor Vern, who promises rain if the townspeople heed his words, Lacey May’s mother starts drinking again and runs off with a man that Lacey May dubs the “Turquoise Cowboy,” leaving her with her grandmother, Cherry, in an ailing town led by a suspicious pastor. Eventually, Lacey May is given her own “assignment,” one that’s horrific, traumatic, and forced upon her, and Bieker shows us the ways in which women’s bodies have been subjugated and exploited in the name of a greater good.
To Bieker’s credit, Lacey May is a powerful narrator, exemplifying a sense of innocence and naivety as she navigates the difficult situation she finds herself in. Despite her naivety, Lacey May is likable, with a sense of humor and a powerful sense of drive. Desperate to find her mother, Lacey May shows us the sense of grief and abandonment that follows this loss, and we see her transformation from childhood to adulthood, fast-forwarded given the circumstances. Because of the powerful narration, I was able to feel that deep sense of loss, anger, and sadness throughout the novel.
Bieker also gives us a glimpse into the world of cults and fanaticism. Now more than ever, the world is fascinated with cults, as evidenced from popular movies like Midsommar (2019), or documentary series like Tiger King (2020). The current political climate, too, has shed light on the cult-like nature of various Evangelical groups that have come out in full force to support conservative leaders. In many ways, we are obsessed with cults—from a distance, at least. Bieker’s book, although fiction, sparks that same sense of wonder and fascination, giving us a realistic look at the dangerous and insidious nature of fervently following a Christ-like leader who promises salvation.
Right from the first sentence of Godshot, Bieker shows us that Pastor Vern is not to be trusted. Lacey May tells us, “To have an assignment, Pastor Vern said, you had to be a woman of blood.” We quickly learn more about the church in Peaches and discover that it is less about God’s will and more about Pastor Vern’s. Though Lacey May starts off the novel revering the pastor, it is clear to readers that this is no ordinary church, and its members aren’t being sent to complete ordinary “assignments.” Bieker’s writing kept me engaged, and my fascination with cults was sated throughout. I found myself wishing I could shout warnings at Lacey May, flipping page after page and hoping for the best.
This novel covers a lot of ground—gender politics, poverty, religion, and more—but all of these topics are handled with precision and care, and nothing feels contrived or forced upon the reader. All of this eventually leads to an exhilarating ending. Godshot is a fascinating and entertaining read, and while Lacey May’s circumstances are so different from my own—and probably most readers’—Bieker makes us feel for her nonetheless. Above all, this is a character-driven story, with Lacey May at the helm, and as a reader, I wanted nothing but the best for her, which is a testament to Bieker’s writing.