‘I’ve tried my best to give you a good life. But in spite of all my trying a handful of our people with their lives, have made our lives impossible.’ These were the opening words of Reverend Jim Jones’ now infamous suicide tape transcript, the last known recording from the *Peoples Temple, also known as Jonestown, the harrowing cult that ended with the mass suicide of over 900 people, including 287 children, in the north Guyana jungle on 18 November, 1978.
This landmark tragedy is the stage for Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s remarkable debut novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, which begins during the 1960s in America, and follows the life of Evelyn and her newlywed husband Lenny. Disillusioned with the American Dream, Evelyn and Lenny set out for the fabled Eden of Evergreen Valley, California, embracing the countercultural hippie movement as a way of expressing their resentment of the world they inhabit: a world pervaded by avarice, racism, social inequality and war.
‘There’s only one name on their lips, and that name is Jim Jones,’ Evelyn reflects after her first sermon with the charismatic reverend, in which she sees him miraculously heal crippled limbs and exorcise evils from the marginalised, the hopeless, the afraid. And like many other impressionable and disaffected Americans, Evelyn devotes herself to the Peoples Temple by working for the self-proclaimed Messiah, Jim Jones. It is precisely through this lens that Woollett examines the hidden depravity of Jim Jones, which arose from the testimonies of abused survivors of Jonestown. Beautiful Revolutionary takes you places – not only into deep into the lives of the believers, but all the way to the dark heart of Jonestown in the South American Guyana jungle.
When a writer bases a story on real events they run huge risks of inauthenticity and inaccuracy, especially when those real events have already been the subject of numerous films and documentaries. Woollett is too skilled to step on these landmines, however. Her writing is deft, precise, evocative, and totally convincing. The WA born author spent years researching the book, including interviewing surviving Temple members and the families of those who died, and as the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown nears, her novel is a remarkable reimagining of the Jonestown massacre and the events leading up to it.
Not only is Woollett a mesmerising writer who has taken a famous and traumatic chapter of American history and turned it into a compelling narrative, she’s managed to help us comprehend why on earth people were conned by the mad Reverend and done it with empathy and compassion.
Jeff Guinn’s biography The Road to Jonestown is a riveting read for anyone who believes that these tragedies of the past should never be forgotten. Laura Elizabeth Woollett has embarked on a brave quest with Beautiful Revolutionary—and the risk has paid off, with her historically rich and breathtakingly entertaining story about one female hippie searching for life’s meaning in all the wrong places.
*We know ‘Peoples Temple’ needs an apostrophe, but it has always been written thus.
About the author
Laura Elizabeth Woollett was born and raised in Perth. In 2012, she completed an honours degree in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. In 2014, she was awarded a Wheeler’s Centre/Readings Foundation Hot Desk Fellowship and the John Marsden/Hachette Prize for Fiction. Her short-story collection, The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe, 2016), was shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and the 2017 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction.