43 pages 1 hour read

Lydia Millet

A Children's Bible

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Written by Lydia Millet in 2020, A Children’s Bible is a dystopic novel about climate change and generational divide that imagines an ominous near-future beset with turbulent weather, crumbling infrastructures, and interfamily strife. Set in a modern-day world, Millet’s story blends vivid descriptions of realistic teenage slang and salty humor with broader religious allegory and incorporates traces of magic realism to craft an impassioned ode to science. Biblical analogies are frequently employed to portray the apocalyptic nature of worldwide climate instability. A finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, A Children’s Bible was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review.

This guide refers to the 2021 Norton paperback edition.

Content Warning: The source material contains frequent profanity, anti-gay slurs, disparaging terms for people with mental disorders, and instances of body-shaming. There are also descriptions of violence, substance abuse, torture, and cruelty to animals.

Plot Summary

In a rented mansion on the tri-state coast, a clique of middle-aged professionals have gathered for a summer “reunion” party, bringing their children with them. Evie, the first-person narrator, is in her mid-teens when the events of the story take place. The novel is set in the present day, but Evie narrates it from an undisclosed future time and describes the idyllic setting of the vacation property, with its forest, lake, fields, stream, and access to the Atlantic Ocean. Evie and most of the other children, particularly her nine-year-old brother Jack, have a deep reverence for the natural world and are troubled by the depredations of climate change, for which they blame their parents’ generation. Their parents show few signs of ecological responsibility and are much more beholden to money and hedonism than to the environment or their children’s welfare.

Evie and her new friends bond over their mutual scorn for their self-centered parents and engage in petty acts such as drooling into the adults’ drinks and concealing their parents’ identities from each other. One day, the children talk their parents into allowing them to canoe to the ocean and camp out on the beach for several days. There, they meet a group of wealthy teenagers who have come on a huge luxury yacht that is docked offshore. The “yacht kids” boast about the survival “compounds” that their tycoon parents have built to survive the looming ecological crises. After a wild Fourth of July party on the yacht, which some of Evie’s friends attend, the yacht leaves for Newport with 18-year-old Alycia still onboard. Hearing that a violent storm is poised to strike the coast, the kids reluctantly return to the rented mansion, where their parents have restocked the liquor cabinet to ensure that they can continue their bacchanalian vacation. David, the most tech-savvy of the teens, is racked with guilt and tells Evie that he uploaded a computer virus to the yacht’s GPS system as revenge on the tycoons who “ate” the planet, not realizing that the storm was approaching or that Alycia would stay aboard. (Fortunately, the yacht and its occupants make their way safely through the storm.) However, the rented house suffers serious damage and becomes an “island” surrounded by floodwaters. The adults respond with panic and foolishness, even sending the children to repair the roof during a lightning storm. As the storm enters its second day, the adults lose themselves in drugs, alcohol, and sex parties, but the children behave much more pragmatically, using tarps to create a fortress in the treehouses, where they offer shelter to wild animals.

Evie’s brother Jack has been reading A Child’s Bible, a children’s book of biblical stories. He interprets the book as foreshadowing many of the storm-related events. The flooding of the property reminds him of Noah’s Flood, so, like Noah, he tries to save as many wild animals as he can. As the floodwaters recede, the kids rescue a half-drowned stranger named Burl, who reminds Jack of Moses when the biblical figure was discovered floating among the bulrushes of the Nile. Worried about the area’s “standing water,” Burl convinces the children to evacuate to higher ground and leads them on a multi-car exodus to a nearby farm where he has worked as a caretaker. (The parents refuse to leave the waterlogged house for fear of losing their “deposit.”) The farm is isolated and well-provisioned, including vegetable gardens, a generator, a silo full of rice and canned foods, and some goats and donkeys.

Before long, the pregnant mother of one of the teens tracks them to the farm and goes into labor shortly after confronting Sukey, her daughter. A desperate 911 call fails to bring an ambulance, but some of Burl’s friends arrive and help to deliver the baby. However, the mother dies of blood loss. Meanwhile, most of the parents in the rented house have come down with dengue fever from the mosquitoes, and some of the children agree to donate their blood for life-saving transfusions, which are carried out by one of Burl’s friends.

The children spend several months at the farm, which is owned by an unseen woman who established 10 “rules” for living there. Beyond the farm, Burl tells them, law and order have collapsed, and the countryside is being terrorized by looters. In the fall, a scruffy, self-styled militia of “rednecks” invades the farm, led by “the governor,” who brutally tortures Burl and his friends to get access to the silo and the farm’s other sources of food. They eventually shoot the farm’s goats. Later that night, the farm’s mysterious owner arrives by helicopter with a heavily armed SWAT team that sets fire to the barn with the looters still inside. The owner shows kindness to the children, especially the younger ones, but expresses no sympathy for the dead looters, saying only that they broke the “rules.”

The children reunite with their parents, and everyone drives north in a caravan to wait out the post-storm chaos in the 10-bedroom mansion of one of the adults, who is a film director. Nestled in a lavish gated community, the house has its own security fence and is equipped with many luxuries. The children become the main organizers and providers, assigning tasks and building a hydroponic nursery to grow vegetables in the winter. However, the adults adjust poorly to their comfortable prison and become increasingly passive and depressed. One of the teens suggests that they are “disappearing,” and indeed, one morning the parents mysteriously vanish without a trace. Evie comforts Jack, who has become sick and despondent over his fear that humanity will soon vanish along with many other forms of life. To console him, Evie reminds him of his own theory of the Holy Trinity, which he derived from his Bible storybook. In Jack’s view, God represents nature, while Jesus is science, and the Holy Ghost represents all of the things that people make, including poetry. Evie states that people’s poetic vision of the natural world will therefore survive as a “ghost in the machine” (224) and reassures Jack that “[t]he comets and stars will be our eyes […] We call that hope, you see” (224).