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Literature / Miriam's Well

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Miriam's Well is a YA novel from the mid-90's written by Lois Ruby. It explores the conflict between religion, modern medicine, and First Amendment rights, through the eyes of two high-schoolers.

Adam Bergen, a popular slacker, rates his Jewishness dead last on a list of things that define him. So he's not excited to be stuck working on an English project with his shy classmate Miriam Pelham, whose family belongs to a repressive Christian sect that rejects everything from reading secular books to relying on modern medicine. When Miriam lands in the hospital after a fainting spell in school, she's quickly diagnosed with bone cancer; her family, in deference to the church, fights to have her released and treated on their terms (i.e., by faith healing). They enlist the aid of Adam's dad, a lawyer and passionate First Amendment advocate, to represent them in a court battle that gets national coverage. While all this is going on, Adam and Miriam grow attached to each other, but will their relationship survive? Will she survive?


Ruby's inspiration for the book came from the real-life court battle over Pamela Hamilton, a young girl from Tennessee, whose family also fought against cancer treatment on religious grounds. (It didn't end well.)

Though the novel's often irreverent take on religion and frequent use of adult language have earned it a spot on the challenged books list, it has also won a number of awards, including the ALA's Best Books for Young Adults designation.


This book contains examples of:

  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: When Adam and Miriam are trying to figure out how they can spend more time together, Adam suggests they first look at things that are free. He also admits that he lets girls pay for him on dates - but not often.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Loads of Bible references in Miriam's early chapters.
  • Author Tract: Averted. The author said she wanted readers to explore their own feelings about modern medicine, faith healing, and First Amendment drawbacks.
  • Being Good Sucks: At the end of the book, when Miriam realizes trying to convert Adam violates her own moral code, so she tells him she can't do it; it costs her her relationship with Adam.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: The Sword and Spirit Church rejects all modern medicine in favor of faith healing, plus various semi-bigoted beliefs about Jews and other non-believers.
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  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Adam. He's s smart kid, but never takes anything seriously, school included. To the point that he plagiarizes his college admissions essays because he doesn't want to do the work.
  • Broken Aesop: The book is supposed to be about tolerance but the differences between Adam and Miriam are what end their relationship, and possibly their friendship as well.
  • Bookworm: Miriam, a poetry nerd who quotes Emily Dickinson when she breaks up with Adam.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Adam lashes out at his dad for representing the church in court, even though Sam Bergen thinks faith healing is stupid, and he's sure Miriam will die if she actually has to rely on it.
  • Character Development: Miriam grows a spine - and an appreciation for other faiths; Adam becomes more serious, and outgrows his old friends.
  • Class Clown: Brent's always good for some lulz.
    Mrs. Loomis: Adam, is your head on a swivel this morning?
    Brent: He's like that girl in The Exorcist. Did you see the thing on 60 Minutes about the exorcisms?
  • Converting for Love: Averted
  • Crusading Lawyer: Samuel Bergen takes on court cases no other lawyer will touch - like defending an abortion clinic bomber - because they pay in "personal rewards." His passion for upholding the first amendment is what drives him to defend the church.
  • Department of Child Disservices: Miriam's never even seen her court-appointed lawyer, who is supposed to be representing her best interests before the judge, until the day the case is settled. Miriam is also one of about sixty kids in her social worker's caseload.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Miriam's middle name is Berkeley, which is her dad's last name.
  • Everyone Is Christian at Christmas: Even Dr. Chin, the Buddhist doctor who performs Therapeutic Touch, exchanges gifts with her family on Christmas.
  • First-Person Smartass: Adam's chapters are packed with snark.
  • Foil: Adam and Miriam are the main example, but later on Adam and Brent end up being foils for each other as their friendship falls apart.
  • The Fundamentalist: Everyone in Miriam's church certainly qualifies.
  • Girls With Mustaches: Ramona Ruiz, Brent's poetry partner.
    • Though she reportedly makes up for it by being a 42C.
  • God Before Dogma: As the story goes on, Miriam finds that her own view of God doesn't always line up with her church's teachings.
  • Innocent Bigot: Because Adam's the first Jewish person Miriam's ever seriously known, she's full of all kinds of stereotypical ideas about Jews.
    Miriam: Was it boys in general, or just Adam? Or was it Jewish boys who thought up such things?
  • Insufferable Genius: Diana.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Adam is about to punch Brent for asking if it's worth it to get involved with Miriam, since she's probably going to die anyway, before he realizes that he used to feel the same way not too long ago.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Adam.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Miriam's classmates are so weirded out by her religiousness and withdrawn personality that she's always Eating Lunch Alone.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the end, Miriam reaches remission. but [Shrug of God the author never lets on what led to it - chemo/radiation, alternative medicine, or maybe even God.
  • Parental Abandonment: Shortly after Miriam's parents are married, her mother and uncles join Brother James's church. Her father's expected to either convert along with them and proclaim his faith in front of everybody, or move out. So he moves out.
  • Parental Substitute: Uncles Vernon and Benjamin, who stand in for Miriam's Disappeared Dad
  • Sadist Teacher: Mrs. Loomis. She always picks on Adam because he's lazy and treats her class as a blow-off. She's also fond of throwing together pairs of students that she thinks won't get along with each other
  • Sexy Priest: Brother James.
  • Shrinking Violet: Miriam.
    Adam: In class, you never knew she was there. The only way you could tell she wasn't was by staring at her empty seat long enough to remember who usually sat there.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Diana gets obnoxiously self-righteous about pushing for medical treatment for Miriam.
  • The So-Called Coward: Though generally shy and timid, Miriam has no problem standing up for herself when it really matters, like when the whole town is against her for refusing chemotherapy. Or when she refuses to convert Adam, in direct violation of her preacher's orders.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Adam and Miriam tell their sides of the story in alternating chapters.
  • Title Drop: The very last sentence: "At least Miriam's well..."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Lois Ruby said she got the idea for this book from news stories about Pamela Hamilton, a girl from Tennessee whose cancer diagnosis led to a similar court battle. Unlike Miriam, she never reached remission.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Brother James and the rest of the church seem to have Miriam's best interests at heart, even if they have dangerous ways of showing it.


Example of: