Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published in 1998).
Summary: The growth and heartbreaking destruction of Acorn, the Earthseed community founded by Lauren Olamina, and how Earthseed rose from the ashes.
In Parable of the Sower (review) Octavia Butler creates a leader, Lauren Olamina, of a new religious movement in a dystopian America, and describes how she gathers a band of refugees into Acorn, a community formed around the principles of Earthseed. This work continues that story through the narration of Lauren’s daughter, who eventually, with the help of her uncle found her mother’s religious writings and journals, after being abducted as an infant by the extremist wing of a Christian nationalist group.
The chapters of the book begin with an Earthseed verse, then a section in bold print by daughter Asha Vere (born Larkin) followed by journal entries of Lauren that tell the story of the growth and heart-breaking destruction of Acorn, and what followed. Acorn was the place where Lauren and her husband Bankole built a community of refugees on his land and formulated the teachings of Earthseed, gradually drawing convinced adherents. Everyone worked and contributed, children were taught, and products of quality were sold in neighboring towns. She began to think about how they could send people out to teach Earthseed elsewhere. Amid this, the child they hoped for so long was born, who they named Larkin.
Meanwhile, Christian America, a church-based nationalist movement with political aspirations gained increasing sway in a country that wasn’t working. They brought order, housed the homeless, and their leader, Jarrett, became president on a platform of restoring American greatness by cleansing the country of all “heathen” beliefs. Her half-brother Marcos, rescued from slavers, refuses to join Earthseed, drawn by Christian America and his desire to preach. Bankole sees what is happening and wants to take Lauren and Larkin to a quiet town. Lauren refuses, convinced of the truth of Earthseed and the potential of a movement that would eventually take the human race to the stars.
Until, that is, the Crusaders, a radical arm of Christian America come, seize Acorn, imprisoning the men and women separately, and taking all the children away, placing them with adoptive parents, including Larkin. The adults were all “collared” with electronic collars. Bankole dies during the attack as does Olamina’s close childhood friend Zahra. They are supposedly being “re-educated” but no one succeeds in being released. Women are assaulted by their Christian captors and expected to be submissive.
How they escaped, overcoming their captors, and how Earthseed arose out of the ashes occupies the later part of the book. It comes down to Lauren’s “talents,” her abilities to lead and persuade people to follow, not blindly, but willingly. It also has to do with her “magnificent obsession” that she pursues, even when her brother won’t follow, or face the evils Christian America had perpetrated. Likewise, she seeks her daughter for years, but ironically, it is Marcos who finds her, misleads her about her mother and educates her, showing her love her adoptive family never did and her mother never could.
There is so much here. Butler presciently anticipates the Christian nationalism and demagoguery of our own day and its appeal, as well as the xenophobia of anything that is “other” and the subjugation of women. That is chilling. Equally interesting is her exploration of what it means to be a founder of a religious group, to know to the core of one’s being that a revelation is true, and how one cannot do other than pursue what one knows in one’s being is true. Persecution, the loss of family, and arduous work are all part of it, but also the forming of a community of the convinced.
Butler is a compelling but uneasy read. There are brutal and heartbreaking passages, but also much to provoke thought. In a sense, these books might also be parables that might come with the words of the greatest parable-teller, “Let the one who has ears, hear.”