When We Were Animals

by Joshua Gaylord

(Little, Brown and Company/Mulholland, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

A Californian turned New Yorker who has taught at the New School and New York University, Joshua Gaylord also writes using the pen name Alden Bell, producing two horror novels, Exit Kingdom and The Reapers Are the Angels, a novel about zombies that transcends the usual genre cliches. He also has taught at a private school, and his first novel, Hummingbirds, was set in an all-girls prep school in Manhattan.

What is this book about?

You’ve probably heard of Rumspringa, the Amish community ritual that allows teens to sample the vices of the wider world before making a lifetime commitment to their faith. In When We Were Animals, Gaylord takes this concept higher – or lower — imagining an Appalachian town where teens “breach,” running wild on full moon nights for a year, while older, settled folks hide in their homes and protect their little ones from the rampaging, sex-mad adolescent breachers. Told from the point of view of a middle-aged mom who experienced the ritual, it is a powerful blend of two genres: the gothic thriller and the coming of age tale.

Why you’ll like it:

Gaylord grew up in Anaheim in Orange County, home to Disneyland. But there is nothing Mickey-Mouse about this disturbing tale of a town with a weird secret. His professional background includes teaching at a private school in New York City, which perhaps has contributed to his understanding of the emotional and hormonal storms of teenage behavior, taken to quite an extreme in this unsettling story. Reviewers are praising his imaginative plot and the ring-true voices of his characters. One of them praises this novel by saying: “Imagine if Twilight were well-written and grown up.”

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “Lumen, the narrator of this disturbing fable from Gaylord that explores the eternal tension between reason and the irrational, grows up with her widowed father in a small Appalachia-like town inhospitable to outsiders. During each full moon, the town’s teenagers “breach”; that is, they run naked and wild, fight with each other, and have sex in the woods. A late bloomer, she moves from childhood into adolescence after her peers; Lumen at first resolves never to breach, but as her hormones begin to stir, she finds herself torn between seemingly good Peter Meechum and wicked Blackhat Roy, who both debases and fascinates her. Gaylord, who has written two horror novels under the pen name Alden Bell, spikes his fitfully lovely language with noisome noir detail. In the end, some readers may regret that Lumen appears to accept that humanity is “a shameful and secret nastiness,” while she misses the honest simplicity of genuine human emotion, too deep for logical explanation.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Gaylord . . . tells the story of Lumen Fowler, a quintessential good girl who grew up in a small American town with a strange secret: the town’s teenagers don’t just run wild in a metaphorical sense, they literally run wild with each full moon. Looking back at her adolescence from middle age, Lumen examines the year when the young people in her age group went “breach,” spending three nights a month bustling naked through the streets, engaging in primal acts of sex and violence, while adults and younger children hid in their houses. VERDICT In Lumen, Gaylord creates an unforgettable and, well, luminous narrative voice, and his language captures the lush, dangerous possibilities of teenage nights to perfection. Working both as a contemporary coming-of-age gothic novel and as a metaphorical exploration of the importance and cost of exploring one’s instinctual side, this book deserves a breakout success like that of Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel, The Virgin Suicides.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “In this coming-of-age tale with a gory twist, Gaylord recounts the troubled adolescence of a good girl in a not-so-good town. It’s not unusual for small towns off the beaten path to develop quirky rituals. Lumen Ann Fowler’s hometown goes beyond that. When puberty hits, teenagers experience what’s known as “breaching,” a year-long period of cyclical sex and violence, akin to an orgiastic Rumspringa, which takes place at every full moon on the streets of the town and in the nearby woods. Lumen—the kind of girl with few friends, excellent grades and a great relationship with her widowed dad—is convinced she’ll never breach (her mother never did), let alone get her first period. Gaylord cleverly weaves in Lumen’s present-day narration, in which she’s a happily married mother known as Ann whose husband and young son know nothing about her past, with the events leading up to and including her inevitable inclusion in the bizarre breaching rituals. The usual drama between teenage girls and the boys they covet is heightened not only at school, where the students whisper about their exploits under the previous night’s moon, but also during the hypersexualized breaching scenes themselves. At first the tentative Lumen feels outmatched, but as she comes into her own—while unearthing secrets from her mother’s past—she discovers that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Though the buildup, like Lumen’s agonizing wait to breach, is slow, once Gaylord finds his momentum, there’s no stopping this bizarrely fascinating journey of dark self-discovery.”

When We Were Animals conjures the dreamy satisfaction of revisiting the cult horror movies of your youth — things are familiar but they resound in new and unexpected ways, revealing subtle depths and poignancy. This is a dark, inventive and absorbing story, fittingly theatrical. It disturbs and entertains in equal measure,” says Benjamin Wood, author of The Bellwether Revivals.”

When is it available?

Don’t wait for a full moon: this book is available now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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