Alison Wisdom’s The Burning Season isn’t your typical story about a cult.
Technically, the Church of Dawes at the center of her story isn’t a cult per se—but there’s very little daylight between the fundamentalist Christian group at the center of this novel and the concept of cults as we understand them. Yet, what makes Wisdom’s book so compelling is the deft way it explores this unique setting and characters without judging them or mocking their circumstances. Yes, the story unflinchingly portrays the dangerous and misogynistic elements at work in the larger group, but it is also sympathetic to the experiences of the people who have been taken in by the promises of its leaders.
Look, we all want to believe that we wouldn’t end up part of this kind of group. That’s half the reason we want to read books like this, or watch shows like FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven. We’d never fall for this nonsense, we tell ourselves. We would know better. We’d see through it, and understand that we were being manipulated and lied to. And yet…would we? But sometimes our desire to feel connected to something larger than ourselves, to believe that our lives have a definitive purpose, can lead to some incredibly dangerous places.
The story follows Rosemary, a young woman who, desperate to save her marriage, moves with her husband Paul to a tiny town in Texas and joins an ultraconservative Christian sect run by a man named Papa Jake. The uber-controlling community forbids women from even sitting next to men during church services and of course, they aren’t allowed access to things like cars, phones, or social media apps. And Rosemary, a liberal feminist who loves day drinking and Instagram, goes along with it, initially throwing herself into this almost completely alien life out of guilt over her own infidelity. Two years later, she is deeply unhappy, fudging the dates on her period tracker and questioning where she belongs.
We got the chance to chat with Wisdom about The Burning Season, from her inspiration for the Church of Dawes and the community that surrounds it to the way the novel wrestles with almost painfully timely themes of feminism, motherhood, and religious fanaticism.
Paste Magazine: Tell me about how you came up with the idea for The Burning Season. It feels almost unbearably timely for our current moment in the ways it looks at how religious fanaticism not only shapes public policy but women’s roles in public life.
Alison Wisdom: I’ve always been interested in extreme forms of belief, particularly fundamentalist Christianity, because it was like looking at myself and my beliefs through one of those funhouse mirrors: similar enough that I could recognize what I was seeing but distorted enough to be scary. Ultra-conservative Christianity is prevalent enough in Texas that I’ve had brushes with it: a Bible study that began with a dinner, the men and women eating in separate rooms; neighbors who didn’t let their daughters wear swimsuits for modesty reasons; a college classmate whose girlfriend stopped wearing makeup after he scolded her for it.
I grew up a Christian, but when I went off to a private Baptist university in Texas, I was completely fascinated by all the different versions of Christianity being practiced among my classmates. We had the hipster Christians who believed in social justice and the Christians who believed in predestination and the charismatic Christians who believed in prophecies and speaking in tongues—it was this last group that really caught my attention. Their services were very emotionally charged, which I found both entertaining and unsettling, though it makes sense; if you were really witnessing miracles and healings, then the appropriate way to react would be with complete and utter joy, hence the giddy weeping and the dancing in aisles.
But left unchecked and unchallenged, that kind of thing can really get out of control—again, if you truly believe you are witnessing miracles, then why wouldn’t you go all in? If you watch a man heal someone, you might listen to his prophecy, and when you remember that you watched him perform a miracle, you might be more inclined to believe that prophecy. Then if you’ve put your trust into that prophecy, you might as well admit that his teachings are important, that they are worth believing.
It’s the escalating “if you give a mouse a cookie” trajectory of belief. People who normally might be more discerning or less eager to buy into something like this find themselves slowly being pushed into a belief they might not actually have, until one day they suddenly do. You can get to almost any kind of belief more easily than you think, which we’re seeing play out in many facets of our lives, not just in religion, and that’s frightening.
Paste: Was Papa Jake’s congregation built on any real-life groups or examples?
Wisdom: The Church of Dawes is inspired by a mixture of groups. Years after I graduated, I learned that a college classmate founded a church in a tiny town that sounded suspiciously like a cult: they were isolating members from their families and old lives, promoting fundamentalist beliefs, and rejecting of the outside world. That year, they made the news because their forbidding of medical intervention led to the preventable death of a newborn baby in their community. I couldn’t shake the thought that I had known this person now overseeing this group, and that people my age, men and women in their twenties and thirties were just up and moving to the middle of nowhere.
I had also learned about a different church with an emphasis on miracles, wonders, and healings. Part of being a Christian means believing that miracles can happen. But the miracles this particular church traffics in feel inauthentic to me, in a way that can be dangerous and destructive. One of my old friends took his wife, who was dying of cancer, there. They had visions of her “whole and restored” and promised my friend that his wife would live. She didn’t. But he believed that she would be resurrected. She was not. I don’t know how you would get over that, emotionally, of course, or spiritually. It’s cruel to speak these words over desperate people; that, too, is something I’ve never been able to shake.
Paste: Rosemary is an amazing heroine in that it’s easy to love her and sympathize with her but also sometimes really dislike her in equal measure. How did you feel about her, and how would you describe the shape of her arc in this book?
Wisdom: I actually really love Rosemary, though I totally get that she can be very frustrating, and she hardly ever makes the decision I would want my daughter, for example, to make.
Rosemary is a former gymnast, so she comes from this very regimented, very demanding world, and for as long as she can remember, her body has not belonged to her: it’s always been offered up to a coach for training or a judge for examination. Then she gets married to Paul and eventually ends up in Dawes, where her body once again does not belong to her. She is resentful of her body, for the way it has failed and betrayed her, for the way it always seems to slip out from her control, and a lot of her arc is her figuring out how to reclaim autonomy. She also has to reconcile what she believes not only about God but about herself, her marriage, her husband, what things are worth giving up and what things are worth saving.
Paste: There’s also such a timely tension here about pregnancy and motherhood—from the way women are expected to want it and are shunned if they’re not sure (or, God forbid, want to be childfree). But also only if it’s motherhood in the right way. (Julie was a mother, for example, and she’s exiled.)
Wisdom: When it comes to motherhood, it always feels like you are being shamed or shunned no matter what you end up doing. You choose not to have a baby, and you’re selfish. You do have a baby, and then you’re dealing with all kinds of judgment right out the gate. Oh, you had a c-section? You know you didn’t actually give birth, right? You’re formula feeding? Wow, I guess you don’t care about your baby’s immune system or brain development!
When I had my own babies, I realized that no one knows what they’re doing, but a lot of people on Instagram are very devoted to making sure no one realizes that about them, haha. (If you are interested in learning more about momfluencers, please check out Sara Petersen’s substack “In Pursuit of Clean Countertops”!) I think that this tension shows up in The Burning Season because that’s how it feels to be a mom in general. But in some conservative Christian circles, this is even more heightened because it’s taught the more babies, the better, and that part of God’s intention for women is that they become mothers. Not everyone needs or wants to be a mother, and not everyone can be a mother, and there’s no room for those people in that kind of theology. I think that can be incredibly damaging.
Paste: How much of Rosemary’s rebellion about childbirth is her desire not to have kids versus her need to have some aspect of her life that Paul and/or their church don’t control?
Wisdom: Rosemary has a rebellious spirit, and we see that in her attitude toward fertility and motherhood. She is constantly looking for ways she can make choices for her own body despite it being governed so closely by her husband and her church, and her decision not to have a child is definitely a part of that.
But I think she also knows that if she has a child, that’s one more thing tying her to Dawes and to Paul, and there is always a part of her that wonders if she can actually leave. A child would complicate that. Then if she did stay, what would that mean for the child, especially if the child was a girl? But I also think that Rosemary just doesn’t really want kids, and that’s okay! Spoiler alert: she ends up with a baby anyway, and I think she does grow to love that baby, but in the end, motherhood isn’t the life she sees for herself, at least not yet.
Paste: While reading this book, it can be so easy throughout to simply tell yourself Rosemary should resist or fight back or leave when she’s confronted with oppressive and/or frightening things—or that you would leave if you were in her place. Why does she stay, do you think? What does she feel that this lifestyle can give her that she can’t find elsewhere?
Wisdom: It feels good to believe someone has the answers, that someone can fix what’s broken in you. It feels good to be a part of something. It feels good to belong, to be chosen. And there is something beautiful about submission; all religions will teach you that.
Rosemary is afraid of what her life would be like without Paul. She wants to be a better person. She is desperate and feels like she’s drowning, and here are Papa Jake and the Church of Dawes reaching out a hand for her to take. To leave would be to give up on that offer, that hope, and she isn’t ready to do that. Another part of it comes from her background as a gymnast—gymnasts suffer for their sport, pushing their bodies to do incredible things. But that beauty comes at a price. Rosemary is used to enduring pain to achieve the desired results, and she thinks maybe that’s how it is in Dawes too.
Paste: The one thing I was really stumped by was the “miracle” that happens to Rosemary when she suddenly starts being able to breastfeed Lily—maybe because I wanted to believe she’d finally gotten a miracle, I don’t know?—tell me about how you wrote this and what it means in the world of the larger story?
Wisdom: Paul is obsessed with the idea of Rosemary experiencing a miracle, and to me, Rosemary being able to nurse Lily is a miracle. But I love that she doesn’t share it with Paul; it’s a private, personal thing. It’s something for her to decipher on her own—why it’s happening, what it means for her, what it means about the world she lives in.
It isn’t Paul’s business. She knows that it would be used against her, as a reason she needs to believe in what Paul and Papa Jake are peddling, and she doesn’t want that. Also, breastfeeding is wild and honestly, it does feel kind of miraculous. But it can also feel like you’re being reduced to what you can offer to your baby: you’re not just a person but a mom. It’s a gift and a burden. You’re sustaining life with your body, which is incredible, but it’s also isolating. I think experiencing an actual miracle might feel the same way: incredible and isolating.
Paste: What’s the one thing you’d like readers to take away from The Burning Season?
Wisdom: I hope that readers will think about the way the communities they live in shape the choices they make and what they believe and investigate if there is anything detrimental about that involvement. What voices are you listening to, and what are those voices telling you? What lies are you being told? What truths? Particularly now, we have to be discerning.
I also hope people will interrogate their interest in cult stories. Cults occupy a liminal sort of space between completely alien and wholly human, and that space is both fascinating and frightening to consider. These communities spring from beliefs that often seem bizarre, and it seems impossible that a person would fall for those beliefs—or more specifically, we want to believe that we wouldn’t.
But people are complex creatures and, in many ways, fragile, and we are all desperately trying to wring meaning and purpose from our days. We want to feel safe from the things that frighten us; we crave both comfort from the grief of living and shared joy from the gift of living. Cults speak to a tender part of who we are, a needy part. We think that it could never be us, but it could, and I hope people will carry that awareness with them and offer empathy to those they might previously have dismissed.
Paste: Talk to me a little bit about how you came up with this title. It feels, by the end of the book, like The Burning Season has a completely different meaning from what I thought it stood for when I started it.
Wisdom: We associate fire with desire, with destruction, with judgement, and with renewal, all things the novel is concerned with. Plot-wise, too, fire obviously plays an important role in the novel; houses belonging to members of the Church of Dawes are burning in “holy fires.” As Papa Jake says, there’s a season for everything, and this is a season to burn.
But total destruction offers a chance for rebuilding in the empty place that’s left, and that’s where we leave Rosemary. At the risk of being super cheesy, in the end, Rosemary has her phoenix moment, leaving Dawes as the whole town goes up in flames.
Paste: And one fun one, because I love asking this basically just for me—what are you enjoying right now as a reader?
Wisdom: There are so many good books out right now! I loved More Than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez. Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang gutted me completely in the best way. Ashley Winstead’s new book The Last Housewife is out in August, and if you like provocative, dark thrillers and want another cult book, this is the one for you. I also just read Sundial by Catriona Ward when I was on vacation, and I stayed up way too late every night because I couldn’t put it down. For nonfiction, I would recommend J. Nicole Jones’ memoir Low Country, which you can read while you wait for her debut novel, The Witches of Bellinas.
The Burning Season
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.