I fell for The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion on the first page, when the narrator threatened a man with a knife. Normally, violence is not the best way to win me over, but this was the exception. Danielle was hitchhiking, and when she asked to be let out, the man driving the car refused. He claimed it was for her protection, that this was not a safe place for a woman alone. So she pulled a knife out, knowing that would either escalate the situation, or get her out of the car immediately. It told me everything I needed to know about her.
Danielle arrives in the anarchist commune of Freedom, Iowa, the last place her close friend, Clay, had lived before he left and killed himself a month ago. She’s looking to find out what could have driven him to such an action. What she finds is a blood red deer with three antlers eating a rabbit carcass, followed by a household full of squatters, all of whom immediately recognize her from Clay’s stories. Just as she’s starting to get to know them, they see that same deer murder a man in front of the house, and the story is really off and running.
We learn where the deer came from (he is a spirit, named Uliksi) surprisingly quickly. This leaves the story with plenty of time to explore the ramifications of Uliksi’s presence, the tension as the people of Freedom fight over what to do, and the subtle undercurrents of power, morality, and politics. In the end, this is a story about using magic to abdicate responsibility. Uliksi enforces non-violent behavior, so the people of Freedom don’t have to. Some of the residents think the price is worth it, but others don’t. The story asks whether you would be willing to sacrifice your own ideals in order to achieve them.
Freedom, Iowa, was the most believable depiction of an anarchist commune that I’ve ever seen, maybe even more so than Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. It didn’t sugarcoat anything – we can tell that life in Freedom is hard, and nowhere does the author pretend that human nature gets any simpler, just because people have tried to create a flat power structure. There’s still fighting and struggle and people jockeying for control. But we actually see the town attempting to use consensus decision making to figure out what to do about Uliksi. The process breaks down, but that isn’t the point. What matters is that we see them try.
I have no idea how to classify this novella. Is it horror? There is, after all, a murderous spirit in the form of a deer. Is it dark fantasy? There’s magic in this world, for sure. Is it post-apocalyptic? I’m unclear on when this takes place, but it feels like a near future, crumbling America. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. This is a story about power and humanity. It isn’t afraid to ask hard questions and it doesn’t settle for simple answers.
This may be a strange thing to say about a book with such a high body count, but it left me feeling hopeful. Sometimes it’s hard for me to truly imagine a world outside of capitalism and consumerism, but this book did just that. Even though the result is flawed, just seeing the possibility of an alternative gave me a spark of hope.