I know that the World is a terrible place, filled with wild animals and evil men and wicked women.
So begins Jacob's narration. Like any seventeen-year-old, Jacob trusts what his parents and respected authorities have always taught him about the world and his place in it. Like any seventeen-year-old, he questions what he has always been taught and yearns to discover the world for himself so he can fully take ownership of his identity, to decide for himself who he will be. As is common, religion plays a role in his searching; but it plays an uncommonly large role for Jacob: he lives in a small, remote, struggling community called the Grace that believes they are tending a new paradise while awaiting imminent salvation. Outsiders and readers might describe the Grace--Jacob's people--as a cult and Nodd--Jacob's paradise--as an extreme religious commune in rural Montana, but Jacob believes.
"There may not be a next year," I point out.
Enos smiles sourly. "One can only pray."
Jacob believes, but he has never faced a period of trials and tribulations such as he encounters over the course of his narrative. The story starts with his first encounter with an outsider, one that doesn't quite mesh with what he's been told to expect. That's followed by other challenges, from both within and without, to the Grace's faith and place. Jacob believes because he's been taught to believe, but he has never actually chosen the belief for himself; this is the story of his coming to realize that growing up means getting that choice.
It's easy as an outsider to look on someone like Jacob with disdain, but this book successfully puts readers inside Jacob's head with an entirely different perspective that changes our feelings about him. As Booklist said in its review, the result is "thought-provoking and highly captivating."