book reviews, religion

Repost: What Would Jesus Do In Jesus Land? 

I originally wrote this book review for Epinions.com on October 27, 2005. I am reposting it here, as/is.

For the first part of this week, I accompanied my husband, Bill, on one of his many TDY trips. For those of you who have no military or civil service background, TDY stands for Temporary Duty Yonder; it basically means that Bill had to go to a conference out of town. We went to Hampton, Virginia, which is my birthplace. Because I went on this trip with Bill, I got to stay in a lovely, brand new Embassy Suites Hotel, and I was left with a great deal of time on my hands. Luckily, I’m an avid reader and there was a Barnes & Noble located just down the street. I ended up buying four books, and Julia Scheeres’ 2005 memoir Jesus Land was among my purchases.

I have a professional background in social work and public health, and a special interest in so-called “teen help” programs, especially those that are affiliated with churches. I also love to read biographies, and it was in this section of Barnes & Noble where I found Jesus Land. I was drawn by the title, especially given the fact that Jesus Land was in the biography section. I was also drawn to the picture on the book jacket, which showed two cute little kids, a little blonde, white girl and a a little black boy, standing by a trailer. Then I read the book jacket, which explains Jesus Land’s premise. Back in the early 1980s, Julia Scheeres, who is white, and her adopted brother David, who is black, were sent to Escuela Caribe, a brutal Christian boot camp for teens in the Dominican Republic. I had never heard of Escuela Caribe or its parent program, New Horizons Youth Ministries, despite the fact that I’ve done a lot of research regarding so-called “reform schools”. I’m also a sucker for books about dysfunctional families and believe me, Scheeres’ family really fits the bill in that regard!

Jesus Land is divided into two parts. Throughout the first half of Jesus Land, Scheeres describes the sights and smells of life in the rural Midwest, including the ubiquitous homemade signs written in less than perfect English reminding travelers that they needed to get right with God before Judgment Day. Jesus Land gets its title from one of those homemade signs. In the second half of Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres writes about the harrowing experiences she and her brother, David, had at Escuela Caribe.

In the first half of Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres gives readers the backstory of how she and her brother, David, wound up at Escuela Caribe and more importantly, how she and David came to be brother and sister. Julia Scheeres is the youngest biological daughter of very strict, fundamentalist Christian parents. Her father, who drove an expensive sports car, worked as a surgeon in Lafayette, Indiana. Her mother was a nurse, although I didn’t get the feeling that she practiced her profession when Julia and her siblings were growing up. Scheeres’ mother is depicted as quite idiosyncratic, forcing her family to be extremely frugal even though her husband made a very comfortable living. For example, Julia Scheeres’ mother made a concoction that she called “Garbage Soup”, which basically consisted of all of the old leftover food in the house thrown into a pot and simmered into a soup. Scheeres describes this brew in a very unappetizing way and she makes it clear that the family could certainly afford better. Julia Scheeres and her siblings were also forced to wear clothes from K-mart, which set them up for ridicule from their peers. However, even if Julia Scheeres and her siblings had been allowed to wear the very best clothes, they still would have been set apart from their peers because two of the six siblings in the Scheeres family were black.

Julia Scheeres’ older sister, Laura, was born with spina bifida and had spent a lot of time in the hospital having and recuperating from corrective surgeries. While she was in the hospital, she befriended an orphan child who was white. The Scheeres decided that adopting Laura’s orphan friend would be a very Christian thing for them to do, so they put in an application. However, Laura’s friend ended up being adopted by another family. The adoption agency had plenty of other children who needed homes… black children. They pressured the Scheeres into adopting a black child even though they really would have preferred a child who was white. Ultimately, the Scheeres decided that God was testing them by presenting them with a black child and if they adopted three year old David, they would be proving to the world that they were not racists. They would look like the perfect Christians they strived to be. It was a nice idea for them, except for the fact that Scheeres’ parents clearly did not love David as they should have. Nevertheless, they felt David should have a sibling who was “like him”, so they also adopted seven year old Jerome, whom Julia Scheeres depicts as a “bad seed”. She also explains that David and Jerome didn’t even act like brothers until they were older and David began to understand the racial divide that separated him from the rest of his family. Scheeres makes it clear that she and David were close from the very beginning, even though Julia often caught a lot of hell from her peers for having two black brothers.

Scheeres describes what daily life was like for her and David. She was clearly given preferential treatment by their parents and she speculates why she was treated differently. For one thing, she was their biological child. For another thing, she was white. Scheeres describes in heartbreaking detail how David and Jerome were mistreated at the hands of their adoptive parents as well as their peers. Through it all, David remained good-hearted, while Jerome slipped further and further into the dark side. She also writes in an almost detached way about some of her own painful experiences growing up as their sister. The first half of Jesus Land could really be its own book. As jam packed with Scheeres’ painful stories as the first half of Jesus Land is, I got the feeling that there was more she could have added. She doesn’t tell readers much about her older siblings; they get just a passing mention or two. Instead, she focuses on her relationship with David and to a lesser extent, Jerome. I felt really sorry for all of the Scheeres children as I read about how they were treated by their parents. I didn’t get the feeling that Scheeres had any affection for her mother and father, whom she depicts as very weird people.

In the second half of the book, Scheeres describes how she and David ended up being shipped off to reform school in the Dominican Republic. Again, this part of the book really could have stood on its own, had Scheeres added more substance to it. I really felt like it was another story, even though it was very helpful to know what had transpired in David’s and Julia’s lives to lead them to such a place. They had gone from backwoods Indiana to an island in the Caribbean; suddenly there was a new cast of characters and a new setting with only passing references to the original setting and cast.

Despite her ordeal, Scheeres manages to keep the story from dipping into self-pity, although I did get the feeling that she felt somewhat sorry for David, much less so for Jerome, who was very abusive to Scheeres. Again, Scheeres writes Jesus Land with surprising detachment, even though she graphically relates several instances in which she was abused at the hands of other people. Her tone gets a bit more personal when she writes about David. Scheeres shares that when she and David were younger, the family had taken vacations to Florida. Their memories of those Florida vacations were among their best. Consequently, Julia and her brother dreamed of turning eighteen and one day moving to Florida together, where they could do whatever they wanted to do. When things got rough, one of them would say “Remember Florida” in order to get the other to focus on the idea that things would get better.

Jesus Land is written in the historical present tense, which gives this book a “real time” feel, even though the events occurred in the 1980s. Scheeres makes many references to popular music in the 1980s, a forbidden pleasure, since Scheeres’ mother apparently tried to shield her children from “worldly influences” by constantly playing “Rejoice Radio” over their home’s intercom system, using the intercom system to listen to their conversations, and forbidding them from watching anything but family oriented or religious television shows. It’s often been my experience that children who are raised in very restrictive homes often end up rebelling or prematurely having the experiences from which their parents most want to shield them. Scheeres is no exception to this rule. She writes of abusing alcohol as a teenager, losing her virginity to rape, using enough vulgar language to make a sailor blush, and witnessing as her brother, Jerome, threw an illegal party while Dr. and Mrs. Scheeres were on a trip.

Jesus Land was a fast read for me. I finished it in a matter of hours, but that was partly because I was killing time, waiting for my husband to get out of a marathon meeting. I enjoyed reading Jesus Land and thought it was well-written. I’m a bit torn, however, on how I feel about how this book was presented because it does seem like two books to me. It’s not until the end of the book that Scheeres really explains why she wrote Jesus Land and where she really got her basis for the book. It’s true that Jesus Land is based on her own experiences, but it was also very much based on her brother, David’s, experiences. It wasn’t until I read her explanation that I finally had some grasp of why she adopts a more sensitive, sympathetic tone toward her brother’s experiences than she does for her own– and ultimately it’s that revelation that makes the phrase “Remember Florida” very poignant. I think that had Scheeres not explained herself, I would have given Jesus Land four stars. Scheeres’ epilogue and the explanation that she includes within has prompted me to award Jesus Land five stars. Jesus Land is a worthwhile read, especially for those who are interested in books about family dynamics, racial issues, fundamentalist Christianity, or “teen help” facilities. Moreover, Julia Scheeres has had experiences of which the average reader will never have a first hand understanding, and she offers valuable insight for those of us who can’t relate personally to her situation. I think she’s done the public a great service by putting her story in print for the world to see.

Julia Scheeres on the Web…

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