Wednesday, July 30, 2014

LAY IT ON MY HEART & TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are told by small town kids who struggle; one with extreme evangelism, the other racism.

Harper Lee's classic novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, revealed the underbelly of racism through a young girl's narrative of injustice and hypocrisy in a small southern town. Something similar happens in Angela Pneuman's new novel, LAY IT ON MY HEART, (July, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), where Charmaine Peakes, a 13-year old raised in an extreme evangelical Kentucky town, struggles to reconcile her family's belief and the town's moral purpose with the downward spiral of their lives. Amazingly, this novel manages to be funny about the serious stuff.

That she is the granddaughter of the iconic prophet of East Windsor, whose "great awakening" attracted people to found the town, gives Charmaine a special status. But more important to her is the fact of her father's prophetic gift. He's revered by the town as a man close to God, whose writings are inspired. Charmaine wishes he had more time for her, though she accepts that he's "different" and struggles to fulfill his expectations.

Among these is the prayer without ceasing. While her father's been in Jerusalem, Charmaine tries to master this practice but finds it difficult. Continual prayer is supposed to be so automatic, it's under your thoughts and words. Yet no matter how she tries, she loses the thought and experiences no sense of the Holy Spirit. She wants to succeed to be close to her father. Not yet, she thinks on the way to meet him at the airport.

He's written her mother, Phoebe, that he's received a new direction, which she says is probably a series of articles. Charmaine, like her mother, is leery of revelations since the one to " live on faith alone," which meant he quit his job. Except for her mother's secret seamstress work, they would have lost their home. Charmaine prays to be strong enough for whatever course God has chosen, hopefully not incessant poverty.

At the airport, she hardly recognizes her father in the gaunt man wearing filthy tattered robes. Dazed by his surroundings, David barely greets his family and Charmaine can't help being embarrassed by his smell. That he immediately heads for their cabin by the river, is also disappointing, Charmaine and her mother can only hope that he will eventually come home.

Charmaine also worries that he's wandering in the dark, wrapped up in ceaseless prayer. This proves prophetic, when he stumbles into poison ivy, tries to kill the itch with bleach, and ends up in a hospital ward with serious burns. Then his possession by the Lord disappears, along with his ceaseless prayer, when a psychiatrist gives him medicine for manic depression. The prophet becomes a stranger, even to himself.

Phoebe is stunned by the idea of mental illness. She tells Charmaine the old story of how her father proposed marriage because God told him to marry her. When he recovers, he'll come to himself, she says. In the meantime, Phoebe gets a job as a substitute teacher, rents their house, and moves them to the cabin by the river, really a small trailer on a cement foundation surrounded by logs. For Charmaine this is a huge loss. Not only can't she visit her father but she has to leave her room and most of her possessions to a pompous missionary boy.

She begins 7th grade possessing a cat and some old clothes. Worse is the loss of
privacy in the claustrophobic cabin. And, as they sink into the struggle for daily survival on substitute teaching gigs, food is scarce. McDonald's is a luxury, when they scrounge coins for gas. So Charmaine takes the school bus, where her identity is constantly challenged from sexual teasing to Jesus Freak labels. But she's got a kind of internal discipline, viewed as "uppity," to withstand much of this, and she makes a couple friends.

For them, her father's absence is business as usual. Tracy's father started another family and stays when he feels like it. Kelly Lynne, the beautiful would-be cheerleader, never sees her divorced father, while her mother keeps starting over with new husbands. Charmaine is clear that divorce does not apply to her parents. Her father is ill and will come home. Yet she hears Phoebe, her confidant in close quarters, talk about how she never thought to doubt him. He was God's own and a wife was to "cleave" to her husband in all ways. She bitterly calls herself a fool. Charmaine doesn't say that cleave has two meanings, to tear apart and to stick together.

Charmaine's pastor asks her to choose people to "Lay on her heart" and she chooses her friends. They are not of her faith and she's questioning all she's been taught to accept. There's putting God first, when she doesn't feel a connection, and her father's prophecy may be mental illness, and the evils of lust, when she sees how repression in one townsman led to a twisted life. And while she respects the charitable values of her community, she dislikes the pity that's replaced reverence and the fact that financial aid hinges on her father's recovery.

In LAY IT ON MY HEART, Charmaine's foundation of belief cracks open with the reality of her father's mental illness and the hypocrisy of her community. Like Scout, she develops uncompromising honesty. She keeps faith with what she has experienced. At the end of the book, she climbs a water tower and looks down at all the places of her childhood. The police lights converge to rescue her but Charmaine has already rescued herself. She has found a place, where inspiration and sanity are one.

S.W.