A novel about purity culture and its harm

At its core, God Spare the Girls is about a family history doomed to repeat itself.

Kelsey McKinney’s debut novel unravels the history of a prominent pastor’s family in Hope, Texas, offering insight into the inner workings of the sort of evangelical congregations that popularized the Ameri­can purity culture movement. God Spare the Girls explores the potential of young womanhood—and in this community, its sudden dissipation—through the Nolan sisters, Caroline and Abigail, the summer before Abigail’s impending marriage. As McKinney peels back layers of family struggles that go back generations, she centers the sisters’ fight to grow closer and find comfort in each other during an escape to their grandmother’s ranch, while the consequences of their father’s sins swirl vastly around them.

As the novel begins, the Nolan family is working hard to maintain an immaculate image for the Hope congregation, while internally each individual feels a bit differently. Luke, an unusually famous evangelical preacher, has always gone to his eldest daughter, Abigail, for spiritual inspiration and advice. Ruthie, the mother, often confides in Abigail with her own personal struggles. Abigail has annually announced to Caroline that she wants them to be closer, but their sisterly bond has never seemed meant to be. Caroline is relatively isolated in her family, and as she begins to feel disillusioned with her faith she tentatively explores other ways of life, wondering whether she should follow the purity culture empire her father has helped build. By centering the evolving relationship between the sisters, McKinney gives insight into the particular type of life that young women in this community are prepared for by those around them.

As the summer days on the ranch unfold, the Nolan sisters truly get to know each other for the first time. Abigail, an “old maid” at age 24, is more than ready to tie the knot with her fiancé, Matthew. She is the face of her father’s campaign against premarital sex that has gained him so much national attention, and she knows exactly what she wants in her life with Matthew. Caroline, on the other hand, has her doubts. She can’t quite imagine a future like her sister’s for herself, and she is unsure of who she would be without all of this structure in her life.