The Line Between (2019) is a chilling and believable take on what happens when a long-extinct disease emerges from the frozen tundra in Alaska. Apparently free-range hogs will eat almost anything, including a disease-infested caribou carcass exposed by the melting permafrost (nod to global warming here). The prion-based disease promptly teams up with a modern flu virus. Invariably fatal cases of rapid early-onset dementia ensue.
These sobering events are seen through the eyes of twenty-two-year-old Wynter Roth, who, as the story begins, is escaping/being kicked out of her apocalyptic cult in rural Iowa. It’s a combination of both: she did want out, but the method and timing were taken out of her hands, and she’s deeply torn because her older sister Jaclyn and her four-year-old niece Truly are still locked into the New Earth cult’s life. Plus, Wynter has spent fifteen years being indoctrinated with the doomsday beliefs touted by New Earth and its millionaire leader, Magnus Theisen. So she can’t help but think that all of the natural and man-made disasters she sees in the news are evidence that Magnus may have been right after all. The latest and worst disaster is the deadly pandemic that inexorably spreads across the U.S. and — thanks to modern transportation — internationally.
But Jaclyn shows up at the home where Wynter is staying with one of their mother’s old friends, claiming that Magnus has a connection with this pandemic disease, and handing Wynter some tissue samples she stole from Magnus, begging Wynter to get them into the hands of a scientist who can use them to analyze the disease. So begins a race against the fall of a disintegrating society and Magnus’s agents, who are determined to reclaim the tissue samples.
Apocalyptic tales featuring widespread death and the disintegration of society stories always pull me in, but in The Line Between the pandemic is mostly a backdrop for Wynter’s story of her life in the New Earth cult, told through flashbacks, and her fleeing across several states with the hot tissue samples. Luckily for Wynter, there’s a cute guy who comes along to help her on her journey. It’s there that the plot becomes rather predictable, and Lee pulls her punches.
Offsetting that, at least to some extent, is the unexpected way that this book ends. Though this novel would work reasonably well as a stand-alone read (albeit with an unresolved ending), at the same time it’s clear that there’s much more that can be told. The sequel, A Single Light, was just published in September 2019, and I plan on reading it soon.
Initially I was dubious about the cult-follower portion of the plot, but in the end I thought it was well done. We get an up-close view of the hypocritical Magnus and his insidious ways of maintaining control over his flock. Magnus, along with the other adult men, use the cult women (especially the younger ones) to satisfy their sexual desires, cloaking them with a religious veil to justify their actions. At the same time, author Tosca Lee, who has written several Bible-based novels, briefly offers another honest religious character as a counterpart to the slimy Magnus, but The Line Between overall is a more secular tale, rather than preachy.
The title of this novel, The Line Between, was interestingly elusive for me. In an email exchange I had with Lee, she commented that there are several lines, both physical and metaphorical, that play a role in the story: “the main one being the line between heaven and hell (the one she steps over as she steps out of the compound at the beginning), but also the line between safety and danger, the fine line between crazy and the crazy things we do to protect those we love … between faith and fanaticism, fear and bravery in the face of that fear.”