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SINS OF THE MOTHER by August Norman: Book Review

Although she won’t admit it, Caitlin Bergman’s world is shaken when she gets a call from small-town sheriff Boswell Martin to identify a corpse.  She flies to Coquille, Oregon to view the body of the woman the sheriff believes is her mother, but Caitlin isn’t able to help him.  She hasn’t seen her mother, whom she derisively calls Mama Maya, in over thirty years.

As she has always explained to anyone who asks, both her parents are dead.  Caitlin’s mother had abandoned her and her father; except for sending Caitlin a book on her thirteenth birthday, the two have had no contact. 

During the autopsy, a key is discovered hidden in the woman’s body; it belongs to a safe deposit box in a local bank.  Caitlin is listed on the bank’s records, and that is how sheriff Martin located her.  Unable to prove the identity of the disfigured body, which has been rendered virtually unrecognizable by animals and by the killer who removed its fingerprints and teeth, officials cannot obtain a warrant to open the box.  But since Caitlin is named as the beneficiary, she has that power.

Still reluctant to become involved, Caitlin asks in whose name the account was opened, still hoping it hadn’t belonged to her mother and that it wasn’t her mother whose body was found.  However, when she hears “Sharon Sugar,” she’s convinced.  “That was her stage name,” she tells Martin.  When Maya abandoned the infant Caitlin, she became a star in the adult entertainment business, i.e., a porn star and stripper.

For a small city, there’s a lot going on both on the surface and beneath it in Coquille.  There’s overt anti-semitism; a splinter quasi-political group that wants to create a new state, the State of Jefferson, that would combine northern California and southern Oregon; and a religious cult, the Daughters of God, of which Maya was a member.

The anti-semitism shows up in the form of locals calling Caitlin a “Jew bitch”; the State of Jefferson is the brainchild of a group of white right-wingers; and the Daughters of God is a cult of women led by its charismatic leader Desmond.

The Daughters of God was founded years earlier in Los Angeles but has relocated to southern Oregon.  Its members make reference to God’s Hill, the Knowing, the Climb, the Morning Song, the Eternal Flame of Ceremony Peak, and other esoteric names, the meanings of which are known only to the women involved.

Inside the safe deposit box Caitlin finds a journal that her mother kept during her years in the cult.  Maya had became Magda, and Caitlin begins to understand her mother’s desire to gain forgiveness and understanding for the life she had led prior to joining the group and the almost hypnotic spell that the Daughters of God and Desmond had over her.

Sins of the Mother is a deep look into how cults work on those who are most vulnerable and their impact not only on its members but on those who remain on the outside, helpless to reach their loved ones and bring them back to their families.

August Norman has written a powerful, insightful mystery about love and redemption.  You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.