Religion with fire, snakes, and poison.
Helpless and desperate mother begging for a miracle.
Shyster preacher? Of course.
The story is told in three voices: Adelaide, eighty-one years old and the town’s midwife; Clem, the town’s sheriff with a heartbreaking story of his own; and Jess, a nine year old boy with a mute eleven year old brother.
Adelaide is terrified of the church with its snakes and members speaking in tongues. She’s seen what can happen behind the closed doors and blacked out windows. She’s watched the men of the church keep its secrets while members sip poison and let fire brush their faces to prove that God will protect them. That they have been Chosen.
Ten years ago she and Pastor Chambliss came to a dangerous truce that allowed her to pull the children from inside the church to teach them outside while their parents danced in feverish abandonment. Pastor Chambliss has never trusted her for leaving and waits for her to make the tiniest mistake so he can turn the town against her and bring the children close to him again. She also waits, knowing that something horrible will eventually happen inside, knowing she is powerless to stop it and hating herself because she’s weak.
Clem is also an outsider. He has no interest in the church, other than making sure the faithful keep to themselves and don’t cause problems in town. He’s distrustful of the Pastor but has no reason to poke around.
Until Stump dies.
Jess has protected his brother for as long as he can remember. Stump has been forever silent and sometimes slips into a world of his own. Jess isn’t sure if he understands what happens each day, but is happy to sit beside him for hours, watching dragonflies and searching for perfect rocks. He loves his brother and knows that he’ll always be there for him.
But Stump saw something, and Chambliss has to make sure no one knows.
Jess watches helplessly when Stump is called inside the church. God has spoken to Pastor, letting him know that He is ready to heal the boy. The church will lay hands on him and he will be saved. Innocently and horrifically, Jess drives the nails into Stump’s casket.
Using the three voices and jumping from past to present, stories about the families are spread out. While there are hints of what has happened to Clem, it takes a while for his story to be fully told, and I liked that. Jess’ own father and grandfather are part of the tale and while Jess doesn’t know this, he’s pulled into their history.
Adelaide moves between wanting to protect the children to being desperate to save herself. She’s constantly watched by the church elders and she knows if she slips up anywhere, she will quietly be silenced and no one will suspect a thing. She is also angrily aware that she can protect the children by looking the other way and letting the Pastor lead his adult flock.
The book is heartbreaking. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. The past keep crashing onto the characters, blinding them to what was happening and filling them with rage. Jess watches it all in confusion and panic, not knowing who is there to protect him and where lines are drawn.
The one thing I didn’t like was Jess’ voice. There were too many times when I thought “Yeah, there is no way a nine year old would say that. Or notice that. Or reflect on something with that tone.” However, I did like the innocent lens he brought. I immediately knew what was going on and it was heartbreaking to see that he was unable to process it because of his age.
Clem’s story also works because he is an outsider to the church and yet can probably destroy it. But is he working out of his dedication to serve and protect, or does he want revenge for his own loss?
I really enjoyed this a lot, especially because it showed the madness of Pentecostal ceremony. The scenes inside the church are both terrifying and fascinating. Watching the group whipped into madness, it’s easy to see how someone could desperately want to be part of it because it means God is there to protect them as an individual and it gives them a community that dictates every moment.