The Grace Year Book Review

Kaymin Hester

Content Warnings: lynching, gendered violence, physical violence, gore, pregnancy + childbirth (with complications), starvation, drugging


I read The Grace Year in the car on the way home from visiting colleges in North Carolina. When I got home, I laid in my bed despite the mountain of homework I hadn’t yet started chipping away at and didn’t get up until I’d finished it. Cumulatively, it took me about 4 hours to finish this 404 page book and when I’d finished, I wanted to read it again.

Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year is reminiscent of a brutally feminine Lord of the Flies. It is visceral and unlovely and that is what makes it so engrossing; it’s not the gore itself that makes it fascinating, but the fact that it does not balk from or censor the ugly parts of the story. The book follows a girl named Tierney James who lives in Garner County, a place that is built on the antiquated rules of a woman’s place to an extreme. Each year, every sixteen-year-old girl is sent into the forest to release her magic and return purified, ready for marriage or work in the fields. They embark on this year-long banishment fearing poachers and the elements, but they soon learn that those are the least of their worries.

Imagine being sixteen and forced into a life you did not choose. Imagine embracing it, or fighting it, or making peace with it. Imagine being attacked for your beauty, imagine the attacks being explained away by your clothes or the softness of your skin or the lushness of your hair. If you are sixteen and present yourself in a feminine manner, you likely don’t have to imagine it at all. The Grace Year incorporates the real-life sexism ingrained in our present and past societies; in the book, it is driven by an obsessive, fanatical religion, much like it was centuries ago. At times, much like it still is.

The difference comes in the Grace Year itself: the girls are sent into the woods to a camp where they must stay, lest they be picked off and tortured by poachers. They must govern themselves and somehow, they must release their magic and return after 365 days completely cleansed. While observing the returning Grace Year girls before her own departure, Tierney observes, “we pass the returning girls, bone weary, emaciated, reeking of wood smoke, rot, and disease…And to think–these are the lucky ones” (Liggett 68).

Not everyone who leaves returns, at least not alive; if a Grace Year girl’s body is unaccounted for, their unmarried sisters will suffer banishment to the outskirts, where they will be forced into a life of prostitution, no matter how young. The ones who do make it back often come scarred and disfigured: one of the girls Tierney sees on her way to her own Grace Year is missing an ear and her own mother is missing the tip of her finger. It is forbidden for survivors to speak of the Grace Year and so the departing girls know nothing of what will occur beyond the bounds of their strictly regulated society.

In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment randomly assigned male volunteers into two roles: the guards and the prisoners. Though they were given few formal instructions, the guards soon became violent and tyrannical, and the prisoners, submissive and fearful. They became their roles, with one man having to be dismissed early because he could not differentiate between the falsified prison environment and the real world. Prior to the experiment, most of the guards displayed no sadistic tendencies, but they ended up emotionally and verbally abusing the prisoners with a sick glee. Many of the prisoners were assertive men, but they soon became weak and eager to please.

It is a social phenomenon: when one is assigned a role, they will likely unconsciously tailor themselves to fit it. In The Grace Year, you see Tierney fight this, the undulation of her urge to give in and her gut feeling that something wasn’t right. They model their camp after the society they grew up in with one key difference: they gave themselves the power that had belonged to the men.

During their initial conversations about how they would operate, a girl named Kiersten says, “‘Look around…we are the only Gods here’” (Liggett 101). Garner County crushed them into something powerless, something wicked, something to be controlled, and despite many of the girls’ protests that they see no problem with it, they seize the opportunity to subvert it. They assign themselves leader and follower, they even assign themselves specific magical powers, and it is that unwavering faith that gives it truth. Is there truly magic? The book leaves that open-ended for each of the Grace Year girls–and each reader–to determine for herself.

However, the most exceptional part of this book is Tierney’s character development. She evolves from a girl who rebels against the confines of her restrictive society, yet ultimately attempts to carve a place within its rules, into a woman who sees that change is not all at once. It is quiet, it is slow, but it is unrelenting. She turns from an angry child to a determined adult, a woman who has made mistakes and learned from them. She becomes kind, but not gentle. She becomes caring, but not soft.

That juxtaposition is incredibly important in that it demonstrates that a woman does not have to be just one thing. We often see female protagonists fall into one of two roles: they are either rebellious and star-rattling or sweet and demure. When they are rebellious, everything seems to happen all at once: heirs fall and kingdoms topple and women carrying swords across their backs or daggers on their thighs take over the whole world in a month. But The Grace Year confronts a difficult truth: minds often don’t change. That is not why the world changes. The world changes because women raise their daughters to be star-rattlers and it is a generation of strength rather than a moment that makes the world a better place.

It is a crucial reminder in this world threatened by politicians and global warming and racism and sexism and more cruelty, more tragedy, more pain. It is a crucial reminder that we usurp slowly, we speak loudly, and we accept that we will not always be heard. It is just a signal to speak louder, to raise our children to be stronger, prouder, bolder. We adapt, but we never settle. The Grace Year explores what femininity becomes when it is twisted and narrowly defined, what a girl must confront to become a woman. It explores how the world is not four walls and a ceiling, seven continents and five seas. It explores the processes we must undergo to redesign humanity.