If you are looking for a terrifying dystopia, yet are leery of science fiction, or, conversely, if you are a fan of science fiction dystopias who enjoys strong characterization and meticulously detailed world making, who is leery of "young adult" books, I enthusiastically recommend The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams (2009, St. Martin's Griffin, 213 pp, YA).
Thirteen year old Kyra grew up taking for granted the circumstances of her life--her father's three wives and her twenty brothers and sisters, the rules of life and belief in the Compound, dictated by the Prophet and his inner circle. When she was little, the rules were less strict. Books were permitted, as were visits into town. But now the son of the first Prophet is closing his fist ever tighter around the residents of the Compound. When this new Prophet decrees that Kyra must marry her sixty-year-old uncle (a nasty, lecherous man with six wives already), her spirit revolts. In the Compound, revolt means punishment, not just for Kyra, but for her beloved family, for Joshua, the boy she loves, and for the brave driver of the mobile library, whose books (surreptitiously gulped down in hiding) have sustained her over the years.
After gradually building up the horror that is life in the Compound, Williams brings Kyra's desperate situation to a head in a tremendously riveting chain of events. This is edge of the seat stuff.
While it is clear that the beliefs and dictatorship of the Prophet are grotesque, Williams manages to skillfully show how ordinary people, good and loving people, can stand be part of such a society. The bonds between Kyra, her mothers and father, and her female siblings (her brothers are ominously shadowy--young men are not valued here) are tight and loving. The original spiritual beliefs that brought the community together were not as distorted and evil as they later became. The progression of a planned religious utopia to a dystopia of truly dystopic proportions is fascinating and heartbreaking.
From page 151:
"Sit down," Father says. He puts his arm around my shoulder, pulls me close. I can smell leftover aftershave on him. I close my eyes and breathe deep the smell of my father. I'm leaning against his shoulder, just resting, just loving him, just wishing he could save me when he says, "Do you remember what happened to Brother Alex Delango?"
The smell of sage breezes past. "Yes," I say.
"Do you remember how he lost everything because he dared to contradict Prophet Childs?"
We sit for a moment, the quiet and cool night air between us.
"They took his children and wives and gave them to two other of the brethren. They made him leave, along with Brother Olsen and Brother Adamson. The three of them were run off, all of them losing their families because they crossed the Prophet. Do you remember?"
I nod. "Yes sir."
"Do you remember how those fathers were to those new wives and children?"
Again, I nod.
The night sky is full of stars. They look close enough to reach. If I didn't hurt so much, I bet I could touch one."
Having become rather deeply invested in Kyra (it's hard not to--she's an incredibly sympathetic, intelligent, and loving narrator), I would like a sequel (although it doesn't look as though that's in the works--see Lu Ann's Book Review interview, linked below). Williams has given her readers credit by not insulting them with a Happy Ending with all problems resolved...and I am still rather worried about Kyra.
There are scores of other blog reviews and reactions around; here is a sample: The Shelf Elf, The Compulsive Reader, Sara Zarr, Carrie's YA Bookshelf, and Jen Robinson's Book Page. Of particular interest is Melissa's reaction over at Here in the Bonny Glen, in as much as Melissa wonders how reading it as ebook changed her experience of the story...
And here's an interview with Carol Lynch Williams over at Cynsations, and another at Lu Ann's Book Review,
Incidentally, Patrick, the mobile librarian, is my nominee for Fictional Librarian of the Year.