Saturday, February 14, 2015
In a lot of ways, the youngest members of the Phelps family aren’t much different from other kids.
They attend Topeka public schools, where they might be allowed to dabble in activities like track or band.
If you go
What: Susan Kraus reading of "All God's Children"
Where: The Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St.
When: Wednesday at 7 p.m.
They belong to a strict — but loving — family that regularly hosts birthday celebrations and pool parties in the sprawling backyard of their Topeka compound.
Like their peers, they go to church every Sunday. And they adored their “Gramps” Fred, who died last March at 84.
But the Phelps kids also love picketing the LGBT community and funerals of soldiers, bearing signs with hateful and offensive slogans. After all, they’re doing God’s work, or so they’ve been taught.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to think, “these kids are intimidated; they live in fear,” says Lawrence author Susan Kraus, who found this wasn’t the case during the two years she spent researching the infamous family and community for her most recent novel, “All God’s Children.”
During that time, Kraus met with two of Fred Phelps’ sons — Jonathan Phelps and the estranged Nathan Phelps — and attended Sunday services at Westboro Baptist Church.
“Things happen later when they become adolescents — some start to question and some don’t. But as children, they think they’re in the best family in the world,” Kraus says. “God has chosen them to spread His word, and they’re special. The kids I talked to were like, ‘We love going on pickets.’ It was like, ‘OK, put the cooler in the backseat, and we’re all going to go.’”
Kraus will read from her book, which she describes as “fiction based on a foundation of fact,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St.
“All God’s Children” tells the story of a custody dispute between a combat vet named Mike and Becca, a fictional member of the Phelps family, over their illegitimate 11-year-old son, David. With the Phelps involved, the case ultimately becomes a battle for the child’s soul and eternal life.
Relying on her extensive research, Kraus explores what happens when religious “beliefs trump everything,” even family and love.
She wants readers to understand that “All God’s Children,” the second book in her Grace McDonald series, isn’t about the Phelpses. Instead, Kraus draws from her experience as a therapist and mediator to examine “what it’s like for a child… in the child custody process.”
They’re the ones who whose “lives are at stake” during these cases, and rarely do they have a say in the matter, Kraus says.
“That’s the underlying theme,” she says. “What would a child raised in this environment — raised to see people on the outside as tools of Satan — to be ordered by a judge that you have to go live with this tool of Satan at least two nights a week?”