Because of his wealth and power, a serial rapist repeatedly escapes the consequences of his actions. A man beats his wife severely but is somehow found not to have committed a crime. A young man admits—without remorse—to killing a woman he’d been having sex with, and gets a light sentence and an early release from prison. “She was a slut,” the logic goes.
Such situations figure all too often into the news, and sometimes, they are part of our personal histories. But imagine a world in which groups of vigilante women make sure that the men who commit such crimes face real consequences—usually, fatal ones. Rosalie Morales Kearns does just that in her masterful and thought-provoking new novel, Kingdom of Women, set in a not-too-distant future that flows chillingly and logically from our less-than-just present.
Yet to the great credit of the book, its treatment of vengeance and justice is far richer and more nuanced than this vigilantism suggests. That’s thanks to the central character, Averil Parnell, a practitioner of a progressive, nonpatriarchal form of Catholicism. Over the course of the novel, Parnell is personally and spiritually tested by violence—committed both against and by women—and as she grapples with how to respond to it, she raises an important question for herself, her community, and readers: can mercy have a place in the delivery of justice? Or, more pointedly, can justice truly be delivered in the absence of mercy?
Parnell has every reason to be vengeful herself. Out of twenty-three women who were to become the Roman Catholic Church’s first female priests, she is the only one to have survived the ordination ceremony; the rest were murdered by a man with “a semi-automatic weapon and a venomous hatred of women.” The shooter himself was killed at the scene of the ordination.
In the wake of this tragedy, Parnell is uneasy with the notion of just turning the other cheek, just forgiving, as her religion has commanded, traditionally. At the same time, when would-be vigilantes offer to act against the gun dealer who sold the assassin his weapon or the judge who paroled him after he’d beaten a woman, Parnell wants “no part of” such vengeance. When these women ask, “What about justice? … Isn’t that what your god is all about?” Parnell replies, “I don’t know what my god is all about.”
Parnell’s independence-of-mind never wavers, often to her detriment. When she refuses to cooperate with the FBI, whose agents want her to reveal what potential members of the women’s vigilante movement may have shared with her in the confession booth, she is demoted to a countryside parish, where she’s tasked with assisting the pastor.
Parnell looks forward to leading a quiet, scholarly life in the new parish, but this is not to be. As she takes up her work at the parish, the vigilante movement evolves into a larger, more systematic opposition to violent misogyny, eventually leading to war against the men-led Defenders of the American Way, or D.A.W. During the conflict, Parnell looks for ways to serve others without sacrificing her principles or taking part in violence.
When in the aftermath of the war, tyranny—and unjust, merciless acts—threaten to overtake the anti-D.A.W. movement, Parnell’s beliefs are sorely tested, and she experiences what struck me as a crisis of the soul. She, and readers, are left to ponder the following question: What happens when, out of political expedience, a community—even one founded with the best motives—dispenses with compassion and mercy, and with the right to impartial justice?
Parnell’s polar opposite is Catherine Beck, an expert assassin in the vigilante movement and, later, a leader of the war against the D.A.W. For Beck, religion is “merely a pastiche of poetic phrases,” and she has no qualms about shedding the blood of rapists, wife beaters, and other men who commit violence against women. As implausible as it may seem, a deep bond forms between Beck and Parnell, at least partly out of mutual admiration; neither woman will stand down from her principles.
In a narrative sense, Beck is a living (and weapon-wielding) argument against Parnell’s preference for nonviolent activism—and a convincing argument at that. But she and Parnell are far more than embodiments of stances in a debate. Like every other character in Kingdom of Women, Beck and Parnell emerge as real people, fully fleshed out with quirks, obsessions, desires, and complications. For that reason, I came to deeply care about and be moved by them, and to sympathize with their views, opposed though these often were.
There is much more praise I could give this deeply felt, thoughtful, and beautifully written book. But I’ll just end by saying how much I admired Kearns’s writing about personal religious experience—Parnell’s, in particular. It was refreshing and inspiring to see this experience evolve over time, free of penalizing rules and dogma, especially patriarchal rules and dogma.
Finally, I feel the need to mention that Kearns is the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, which is committed to publishing literature by women. The press has put out several great books, including The Female Complaint and Not a Self-Help Book, both of which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing. I highly recommend these books, and now also Kingdom of Women.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Stories with strong female characters in leading roles
▪ Tales of vengeance or justice
▪ Explorations of religious experience
▪ The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood