“Father Divine's Bikes” Review and History

“Father Divine's Bikes” Review and History

America has a long history of discrimination, to put it lightly. Our history is loaded with hostility toward immigrants. We are still grappling with the legacy of slavery. And let’s not forget the Trail of Tears and internment camps. It’s no wonder that racism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination are recurring themes in historical fiction set in the United States. Today’s authors have the particularly challenging task of illustrating the bigotry of the past without offending modern sensibilities. Or do they?

Father Divine’s Bikes by Steve Bassett, which I got for free in exchange for an honest review, is littered with derogatory language. I actually learned a derogatory word by reading this book. “Father Divine’s Bikes” takes place in 1945, people were intolerant. In 1945, people still believed Italian Americans were predisposed to criminality and that women were second class citizens. Racism and antisemitism were rampant.

It makes sense to have intolerant characters in historical fiction use derogatory words in their thoughts and dialogue. The question is whether authors should eschew the use of derogatory words in narration. Does limiting racist, misogynist, and otherwise discriminatory language in new historical fiction discourage its use in modern life? Or does it trick us into looking at the past through rose-colored glasses?

Father Divine’s Bikes Review

Bassett’s indulgent use of derogatory language was a bold move at a time when everyone seems to be offended. I don’t know whether Bassett made the right choice or not, but judging by other reviews on Goodreads, readers do seem to appreciate the rawness ofFather Divine’s Bikes.” For me, the discriminatory language in “Father Divine’s Bikes” was more distracting than offensive, but there was a lot to be distracted by in “Father Divine’s Bikes.” 

“Father Divine’s Bikes” progresses in fits of stops and starts. By the half-way mark, the book has no clear protagonist(s), and I have no idea where it is going. Ultimately, I didn’t finish “Father Divine’s Bikes.” Life is too short to continue reading books I don’t enjoy.

To be fair, my dislike of “Father Divine’s Bikes” might also have more to do with me and my tastes than the book. I am not a fan of books with too many characters, which is why I’m not a fan of “A Game of Thrones.” I couldn’t finish “A Game of Thrones” because of the outrageous number of characters, and “Father Divine’s Bikes” isn’t any different in that regard.  

Father Divine

On the plus side, “Father Divine’s Bikes” introduced me to a historical figure I had never heard of, Father Divine (though Father Divine is more of a character in spirit). Father Divine was an African-American religious figure who rose to prominence in the 1930s. PBS calls Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement, “one of the most unorthodox religious movements in America,” in its This Far by Faith Project website, “1866–1945: From Emancipation to Jim Crow.”

Who Was Father Divine?

The information online about Father Divine is contradictory. PBS says that no one knows his real name but it “may or may not be George Baker.” Encyclopedia Britannica’s page on Father Divine, on the other hand, definitively states that his name was George Baker. Father Divine’s birth date and place is also unknown, with most sources giving either Georgia or Maryland as his birthplace and the late 1800s, maybe 1880, as his birth year. In an NPR “News & Notes” interview titled “Who Was Father Divine,” Professor Albert Raboteau, points out that the ambiguousness of Father Divine’s identity was intentional. His mysteriousness supported his claim that he was God. 

Was Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement A Cult?

Another fact reputable publications can’t agree on is whether or not Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement was a cult. PBS explains that “through his teachings and his actions, Father Divine could be counted among the stalwarts who defended African-Americans' right to have heaven here on earth, not pie in the sky.” And Encyclopedia Britannica states, “Once dismissed as another cult leader, Father Divine was recognized in the late 20th century as an important social reformer.”

William Grimes, however, paints a more cultish picture in his New York Times article, “Mother Divine, Who Took Over Her Husband’s Cult, Dies at 91.” He writes that Father Divine’s followers were required to give the Peace Mission their possessions and savings. Grimes also notes that Father Divine’s ideas and leadership influenced Jim Jones. Jim Jones even tried to take the Peace Mission from Father Divine’s widow in 1971.

Though both men had communes, Jim Jones killed more than 900 people. Father Divine didn’t. As much as the Peace Movement was a cult-like religious movement, it was also a movement for social change. Father Divine’s ideas about race were groundbreaking. Father Divine called for the end of segregation and believed that race was an artificial construct. The Peace Mission Movement also petitioned congress to pass an anti-lynching bill.

In “Father Divine’s Bikes,” Bassett highlights another interesting aspect of Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, the network of businesses the Peace Mission created to provide reduced cost products and services to people in need.

I’m glad I startedFather Divine’s Bikes.” I’m fascinated by cults, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission was particularly unique in the cult-like way its followers followed a conglomeration of diverse though widely accepted religious principles, not to mention Father Divine’s groundbreaking ideas about race. I don’t know when I would have had the opportunity to discover the history of Father Divine had I not started reading “Father Divine’s Bikes.”

One Last Word About “Father Divine’s Bikes”

Even the most devoted readers don’t finish books sometimes. There are too many books to read and only one lifetime to read them. Don’t be afraid to give up on a book every now and then, but also take reviews with a grain of salt. If “Father Divine’s Bikes” sounds appealing you, read it. Other reviewers enjoy the rawness of “Father Divine’s Bikes.” If you aren’t easily offended and enjoy complicated books with tons of characters, Father Divine’s Bikes is probably for you. 

Father Divine’s Bikes

By Steve Bassett
Book Baby. 352 pp.

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