Book Review: House Arrest, by Ellen Meeropol

[Reviewed by Martin Rushmere]

Moral and criminal crises abound when a pregnant spiritual cult member, under house arrest following the deaths of two children at a secret solstice ceremony, draws a homecare specialist into her web.

An engaging plot is subverted by a whirlpool of ethical and emotional heart-twanging that surrounds the otherwise absorbing tale –spina bifida, child neglect, anti-Vietnam protests, accidental deaths, communism, the KKK, family breakups .

The controversial issue of religious and spiritual cults needs to play a much bigger role. Jonestown and Waco, Texas are the images that, understandably, spring to mind when cults are mentioned.

Ellen Meeropol is careful to avoid mentioning them and is equally careful to be impartial about the subject, which is a big disappointment. And she becomes timid. It’s just a small, family cult; so no great harm to society done there – except that this raises the specter of Charles Manson.

No explanation is given for the deaths of the children at the ceremony to honor the Egyptian goddess Isis which, as is the usual pattern, is an orgy — drugs, dancing, drinking and plenty of sex, mostly with the leader.

To balance this, the pregnant Pippa is portrayed sympathetically, exuding engaging charm. Yet, the children should not have died – the central indictment that cannot be escaped but which is tiptoed around.

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Despite this tragedy, Pippa for some reason still believes in the cult and wants to escape her electronic monitor for one night to be at the next solstice ceremony.

The “family” leader is in prison for his role in the deaths. At least Meeropol acknowledges that he conforms to the usual pattern – charismatic, dominating and dictating all lives and behavior, while declaring that only his testosterone can enjoy free rein. (Although I don’t buy the belief that an inter-racial element is usually involved. And it’s an easy way out to proclaim “A sect is when people have an open mind; a cult is when they are fearful.”) But the leader is a peaceful type who abhors violence and wants everybody to live happily ever after.

Reality is otherwise. The danger with all such leaders is that they possess qualities and world views that range from Jesus to Rasputin, usually tipping over into the latter.

But the cult theme becomes lost in the whirlpool in this story. The result is that everything peters out with no resolution. The author seems to have thrown in all the unpleasant topics she demands that society faces, which become bewildering for the reader.

Far better would have been to replace one of the topics with some exposition and depth on the popularity of cults and their innocence or otherwise. Mention of Waco and Jonestown cannot be avoided.

Meeropol is perhaps swayed by the current dictate of political correctness that to express an opinion is to be bigoted or prejudiced. One longs to say to her, “Go on, be daring then.”

The economics of publishing today plays a role in the plot ending. New authors have to bring the potential for a series to have a chance of being published and it is clear that a second book is possible. Perhaps then the lingering questions will be answered, but a good tale could have been turned into a great one if they were in this book.

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