The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick is a novel about truth and rumors and the murky area between the two. The book opens with a young man named Ben who writes down his story while he’s stationed in Afghanistan as a medic. In folklore, a sin-eater is “a man who (according to a former practice in England) for a small gratuity ate a piece of bread laid on the chest of a dead person, whereby he was supposed to have taken the sins of the dead person upon himself.” Now to me, that makes it sound like you could be a dark soul who while living enjoyed torturing small children and setting houses on fire, but as long as you died and some poor schmoe was around to absolve you of all sins your slate was wiped clean.
Ben starts his story as a high school senior who has more than enough on his plate. His mother is constantly on his case to apply to dozens of colleges and he volunteers at the local emergency room just because his mom thinks it’ll look great on his college application. During the summer, another senior, Del, is killed by a drunk driver. Ben volunteers to help Del’s family on their farm, befriending his younger brother Jimmy.
Del was a high school jock but his brother Jimmy is a timid kid who is verbally abused by his father. Jimmy's father can’t seem to stand the sight of him since Del died. Ben feels sorry for Jimmy but doesn’t really know what to do. Jimmy confides to Ben that he wants to be a photographer. Ben tells him that he doesn’t want to be a doctor but wants to be a writer. They’re just two dudes talking, imagining the lives they’ll one day lead.
One day while taking a break under an unforgiving sun, Jimmy begins to tell Ben something. He can’t quite get the secret out of his mouth and Ben becomes uneasy because he thinks he already knows what that secret might be:
It’s terrible and huge and awesome all at the same time that I am dying to let out-and only to you. Because only you will understand. Only you matter. If I tell, maybe everything changes-and not for the good. And I don’t know if I can bear that.
When school starts there’s no time for Ben to help Jimmy on his family’s farm. He hates to admit it but he kind of forgets about Jimmy, forgets that he told him he’d be there for him if he ever needed a friend.
Rumors begin to fly when a picture of Ben shows up in a magazine. The picture is fairly innocent: Ben lying in the sun after hours of hard work, unaware of the camera. Jimmy had taken his photograph and entered it into a contest and won. Everybody’s talking about the picture. Jimmy must be gay. He took a picture of a shirtless Ben resting against a bale of hay. Ben must be gay too. It’s obvious.
But is it really?
Ben begins to question himself. He’s never had a girlfriend but is that because he’s so busy volunteering, getting a 4.0 in school, applying to the most prestigious colleges that there’s no time for a girlfriend? Or does he keep himself busy because he doesn’t want to question himself too closely?
Somehow Ben gets painted as the bad guy. Jimmy’s father doesn’t want him around because he thinks he’s a bad influence on his son. The photograph must have been Ben’s idea. The Christian coffee shop where Jimmy buses tables treats Ben like he’s something rotten they stepped in.
Ben’s small and orderly world begins to spin-off its axis as the rumors grow teeth. All his life Ben has been pushed to be the best by his mother. She can’t have a simple conversation with him without asking if he’s written an essay for his Yale admission. Little by little he’s admitting to himself that his life isn’t his own.
He decides to talk to Jimmy, this time without the evil eye from the coffee shop owners and the creepy pastor that seems to have a fierce hold on Jimmy’s family. He sees Jimmy behind the coffee shop, hears low murmuring voices and then a loud “No!” He watches as Jimmy gets into a car with someone he can’t quite make out and follows them for what seems like forever. The car finally pulls into a state park. What happens next shapes Ben’s and Jimmy's lives forever.
There is no moral lesson in this book. There are no answers. But that’s how life is. Would I really be there for someone if they needed me or is that something I just say to make someone feel better? Do I keep myself busy because I can’t figure out who or what I want in my life?
Can I count on myself to know what’s best for me? Barely. Will I sometimes get swept up in gossip and rumors? Most certainly. Will I be a strong enough person to find out the truth behind rumors and gossip? I hope so.
The Sin-Eater’s Confession did what it intended to do: it promised there’d be no answers to any questions. But it told a familiar story, one that we all face day-to-day. Who am I, really? Am I what I want to be or do I play a different role to make others happy?
There are no answers here.
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