Reflecting on his childhood in the early 20th century, Harley recounts that after his father's sudden death, his family migrated down to Florida to join a community of Shakers. Led by Elder John, a generous man with a mysterious past, the colony devoted itself to labor, faith, and charity, rejecting all temptations that lay beyond the property. Though this initially saved Harley and his family from complete ruin, when Harley began falling in love with Sadie Pratt, a consumptive patient who lived on the grounds, his loyalty to the Shakers and their conservative worldview grew strained and, ultimately, broke.
Though Kingdom doesn’t have the harrowing force of Banks’ finest novels...it’s an engrossing morality tale ... The mess that ensues is more complex than a matter of forbidden love. Indeed, the kind of plot mechanics that might make this a romance are largely absent ... Banks is more interested in the philosophical questions sparked by Harley and Sadie’s connection. Can any ideology survive under the weight of our clumsy humanity? ... Though Banks is dealing with big-picture, allegorical stuff...the novel isn’t airless. Dramatic, almost biblical events abound ... Banks is writing with an eye to the present, as ideological clashes consume the current discourse.
... a novel that movingly dramatizes the conflicts between religious utopianism and worldly desires ... Mr. Banks, now 82, has reached the elegiac period of his long and distinguished writing career ... however melancholic, is wistful and tender ... The commune’s precarious existence on the Florida swamplands is depicted with pleasing fullness. And though Harley’s tale is riven by passion and betrayal, it has no obvious villains. Mr. Banks has created a quietly beautiful memorial to a transitory way of life that would soon disappear behind the theme-park attractions of contemporary America.
... by setting his story among these outwardly peaceful, inwardly passionate believers, Banks has created another fascinating volume in his exploration of the American experience ... Impatient readers will be tempted to regard this foreword as a bit of extraneous throat-clearing, but, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction to The Scarlet Letter, these opening pages establish the haunting relevance of the story we’re about to read. While making a show of establishing the provenance of these abandoned tapes, Banks sets the tone for a tragedy the narrator has been stewing over for more than 60 years. In other words, The Magic Kingdom is not the experience as it happened but as it’s been distilled for decades in the crucible of a guilty conscience ... dramatically backloaded, as though, having committed to a full confession, he remains reluctant to reveal what happened, even more than 60 years later...Harley asks as his tape recorder spins. He spends a long time setting down the social, theological and legal forces that will eventually collide, but that investment — by author and reader — is amply rewarded by this masterfully crafted story ... Our literature is thick with skepticism, condescension and downright derision directed at anyone who takes their faith more seriously than an Instagram poem. But Banks has something more complex in mind than the hypocrisy of a religious leader or the predictable impurities of a pious community. He’s interested in the way grand schemes intended to perfect human nature produce instead a combination of secrecy and shame that can spark wildly unpredictable results.