The Book of Fred
Ellicott City author Bardi’s first novel is a funny, sometimes tragic story about what happens when we question authority and don’t like the answers. The title refers to the gospel according to a doomsday cult in Frederick County, Maryland, where some 50 years ago the fictitious Fred Brown proclaimed himself a prophet. His followers, Fredians, believe in the sanctity of the color brown and in a coming apocalypse while abstaining from “unnatural” things such as medical treatment.
The Anderson family lives in the cult’s compound until two Anderson children die from curable illnesses. The survivors are uprooted, the parents arrested, and their eldest child—15-year-old Mary Fred—taken to a foster home in DC, where she meets the dysfunctional Cullison family. Alice Cullison is a lonely divorcée, Heather her moody teenage daughter, and Roy the jobless uncle. Mary Fred, blissfully ignorant of the modern world, slowly works her way into the family through subtle acts of kindness instead of preaching.
The author skillfully weaves in and out of four viewpoints—Mary’s, Alice’s, Heather’s, and Roy’s—but at times the dialogue is stilted. What’s more, while Mary is an intriguing character, her easy adjustment to her new life is too convenient to be believable: Before arriving at the Cullisons’ Mount Pleasant home, she’s never read a book besides The Book of Fred, seen a TV, attended a formal school, or visited a supermarket. Nevertheless, Bardi endears her characters to the reader and creates a world where Mary Fred can maintain her innocence and the Cullisons can regain hope.