Book Review: The Fundamentals by Lydia Gordon

The Fundamentals, by Lydia Gordon, explores the influence of fundamentalist religion on a small-town community, told through the perspectives of three women. Alexa Moss is a humanist, an architect, and a single mother, who inherits her aunt’s farmhouse in Ecstasy, a small town in central Illinois, as long as she agrees to live in and renovate the property. When her 15-year-old daughter’s fact-based education is threatened by an intelligent design lawsuit, Alexa decides it’s up to her to run for the school board, making her a target for the wrath of the charismatic megachurch pastor, Cyrus Bell.

Alexa’s daughter, Lucy, is a science prodigy and resents the move to Ecstasy, away from her friends in Chicago. Unknown to Alexa, Lucy adapts to the move by befriending a group of kids deeply involved in the megachurch, including a new boyfriend that entices her into joining. She struggles with choosing between him and her passion for science. At the same time, Rachel Witman, Alexa’s new boarder and banished niece of the pastor, deals with being tossed out of the church while trying to save an epileptic sister from her faith-healing family.

The novel is a gripping story of three women trying to navigate their new lives in a small community, and the connections they make along the way. The second half of the book sees the characters experiencing the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time in which science and reason are more than necessary. The events around the fictional megachurch mirror what we saw early in the pandemic: churches staying open against lockdown orders, pastors spreading misinformation while collecting PPP loans, and an increasing amount of churchgoers getting sick. These events make the citizens in the town rethink the influence of Bell and the church on their lives.

An important part of this story, and an interesting one, was Alexa’s newfound identity as a humanist. Like many humanist stories, Alexa doesn’t believe in a god but she had trouble labeling her nonbelief, feeling that most labels focus on what she doesn’t believe rather than what she does. She believes in being a good person and in living ethically, which leads her to find out about her local humanist community (which is a member group of the “National Humanist Organization,” whose motto is “good without a god,” inspired by the American Humanist Association). Although they face many challenges, the local humanist group becomes a support for Alexa and she feels a sense of belonging there.

It felt refreshing to read a novel with a humanist protagonist, something that doesn’t happen often. Alexa has to figure out her place in this new town and community, one that happens to be highly religious and doesn’t regard her nonbelief well. Her determination to run for school board, to stand up to the church even though she knows it will be hard and there will be backlash, was inspiring. Situations like that in The Fundamentals are happening in communities across the country, with school boards deciding on issues from teaching intelligent design, to LGBTQ+ student rights, and more. And although Alexa faces challenges and personal attacks, she always remembers she’s fighting to ensure that her daughter’s public school education remains evidence-based and secular. It’s a reminder that we need more representation of humanists and humanist values in leadership positions such as these.

While many humanists could see themselves in Alexa, many of those who have left their religion and deal with religious trauma could relate in some part to Rachel. Rachel not only struggles with her faith, but has to come to terms with the family that she lost when she was shunned by church members. Her whole life was the church, and now, without the support of her family, she has to find meaning and direction without it. Through community and found family, Rachel and the other women discover strength and resilience.

Throughout The Fundamentals, author Lydia Gordon, a humanist herself, explores topics relevant to today and discusses how they both divide and bring us together in a deeply human way. All three women go through different journeys, in life and with their belief and nonbelief, but find ways to come together through their shared experiences and values. Exciting, thought-provoking, and, at times, heartbreaking, The Fundamentals is a novel that you won’t want to put down.

Lydia Gordon is the pen name of an award-winning writer and poet living in the Midwest. She holds an MFA in writing and literature and her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, newspapers and periodicals. She is the founder and current president of her local humanist organization. The Fundamentals is her debut novel and is due for release on November 10, 2022, with preorder available on Amazon by October 10th. Visit LydiaGordon.com to sign up for updates.