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The Rapture of Canaan
Hardback: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995
Paperback: Berkley, 1996
Oprah Book Club Selection
"Folksy lyricism . . . a colorful supporting cast . . . a fresh story. As they say in church, 'Hallelujah.'"
- Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Ms. Reynolds's poetic gifts are uncommonly powerful. In The Rapture of Canaan, she tells a truly rapturous love story and presents two unforgettable characters: the teenage heroine and her skeptical but stalwart grandmother, from whom she learns about the acceptance of loss, the pragmatism that must underlie any abiding love, and the place in every heart where God resides, waiting to reveal himself."
- The New York Times Book Review
- Atlanta Journal & Constitution
"Assured . . . devastating."
"The story compels . . . Reynolds has an imagination that takes the reader into what feels like the world of a teen-age girl trying to make her piece with the world and with God."
- Richmond Style Weekly
"A worthy successor [to Reynolds's debut] . . . gracefully written."
- The Virginian-Pilot
Ninah relates her story in prose both poetic and page turning; Reynolds lives up to the praise garnered by her first novel, Bitterroot Landing (LJ 11/15/94).
- Library Journal
Synopsis: From the book jacket
At the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind, Grandpa Herman makes the rules for everyone, and everyone obeys, or else. But even in this isolated community where it seems nearly everything is forbidden, temptation occasionally touches the congregation . . . and for Ninah, temptation comes in the form of her prayer partner, James. Ninah is determined not to sin with James---so determined that she's willing to fill her shoes with shells to keep her mind on Jesus' pain.
Nevertheless, she soon finds herself pregnant. She fears the wrath of Grandpa Herman, the church members, and God Himself. But the events that follow show Ninah that God's was are more mysterious than even Grandpa Herman can understand...
Read an Excerpt
I've spent a lot of time weaving, but you'd never know it from my hands.
With threads, hair, and twisted fabric, I weave in fragments of myself, bits of other people. I weave in lies, and I weave in love, and in the end, it's hard to know if one keeps me warmer than the other.
And when I'm done, I lift the rug from the loom and study it in my fingers. When I back away five feet, it's bluer or more knotted than I'd remembered. And from twenty feet, it grins at me when all along, I'd thought it pouty. I ask myself, "Is that my rug?" But like anything I make, the rug is never mine. I tell my eyes not to see so much at one time. I flip it over, and from the back, it weeps like someone lost.
Like all lies, loves, stories, it is imperfect, but I could walk on it. I could fold it over the edge of my bed and use it for a blanket or hang it on the wall. Instead, I wrap it over my shoulders, wear it like a shield, covering myself with a tapestry of views . . . .
My grandpa Herman Langston was founder and preacher of The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind. I think when he was trying to come up with a name for it, he just couldn't make up his mind, so he put all his ideas together and acted like a prophet, and nobody said a thing. Grandpa Herman was a big man with red hair and huge freckles that hid in his wrinkles. He wore his blood pressure like the glaze on a loaf of bread, sitting shiny on the surface. According to Nanna, when he was a young man, he used his fists on anybody who crossed him, and as far as I can tell, after he got religion, he did the same thing. Sunday after Sunday, I watched him standing in the pulpit, banging those fists down hard on the podium, saying, "There shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched."
All around the church, penitents would be wringing their hands and crying, hollering out "Amen." My daddy, Liston Huff, would be on the shells of his knees, leaning his head against the pew and whispering loudly his private prayer to God and whoever else couldn't help hearing. My mamma, Maree Huff, would be sitting or standing beside him, her scoured hands held high in the air, her face turned up to the paneled ceiling, tears falling so hard she'd have to sit her shoes in the sun for the whole afternoon just to dry them out.
Beside them would be my brothers David and Everett, and later their wives Laura and Wanda, perfectly mimicking my parents. David was known for holding his bible against his forehead, banging his skin into the cover until he worked himself into a holy trance.
And at the other end of the pew, my oldest sister, Bethany, who was married before I was even born, sat with her husband Olin and their children Pammy and Mustard and her husband's oldest son James, who was just a year older than me.
But I sat with Nanna, in the pew behind them all. She'd give me a pencil and let me draw in her Sunday school quarterly once everybody'd got the spirit. I couldn't draw in my own because if Mamma saw the marks, she'd spank me good. Nanna'd give me rolls of Smarties, the little candy pills that stacked up in their plastic wrapper, green then yellow then pink then white, and it'd take me two hymns and one altar call just to get the wrapper open without making any noise. I always wondered where she got the candy but feared she'd stop supplying it if I asked.
Every two or three Sundays, Grandpa'd step out from behind his podium, his bible in one hand held up in the sky, his other hand over his heart.
"Here he goes again," Nanna'd whisper. "One of these days he's going to fall over and die right in the middle of that story."
And I'd look up in time to hear him talk about liars and forgiveness.
"We've all sinned in the eyes of God. All of us," he'd say. "My own wife Leila, who you all know, my own wife turned her back on God. Turned her sinful eyes away from God and lied. Lied. Lied to the courts of this land, lied to the very people who were trying to bring a murderous whore to justice. But more sinful than any of that, she lied to her Heavenly Father, to her King."
"Yes, Lord," the people would call.
"Just a child. Just a wee child but old enough to know the difference in right and wrong. She saw her own mother engaging in sins of the flesh and did not tell. She did not tell her father. She did not tell God. She allowed it to happen."
"Allowed it to happen," my mamma would yell out.
"And on the day that her own mother pulled out a rifle and shot her father through the back so she could live in sin with a boy young enough to be her son, what did Leila do? Did she call out to God?"
"No, Lord," my brother Everett would answer.
"No. No, she did not call out to God," Grandpa Herman would continue, the tears sliding down his rough cheeks.
I'd look over at Nanna, who'd roll her eyes at me and then sneak me a wink.
"She did not call out to God. She crawled right in the bed next to her murderous mother and slept there. And when her mother handed her a little speech to say to the judge, she studied it, memorized it, memorized that lie."
"Help her, Jesus," somebody cried, as if the things that had happened sixty years before were happening again.
"And she told that judge that her own pappa, the man who loved her more than any earthly thing, had been beating her. She told that judge that her God-fearing pappa had pulled his belt from his pants and was striking her body when her mother pulled out that gun." Grandpa Herman grew quiet and sad, and a hush fell over the congregation as well.
"And why'd she do it, people? Why'd she lie before the greatest judge of them all?"
"To protect her mamma," Bethany hollered.
"To protect a murderer," Grandpa Herman corrected. "To protect a whore, a wicked, evil woman." Then he fell silent to give his words a chance to settle over the crowd.
"But God is good," Grandpa continued. "God will forgive. He'll baptize a sinner in his very blood and pull them out white as snow. We've got sinners among us, sinners who need God's blessing, God's forgiveness. Won't you come? Won't you pray to him now, say 'God, I've been a liar, a murderer, a whore,' Confess your sins to the one who will make you clean."
Then he'd pause and add, "Sister Imogene, play us a hymn," and Great-Aunt Imogene would hobble over to the piano that must have been older than she was.
Sunday after Sunday we'd bow our heads, and I'd hold Nanna's hand while around me people were praying aloud, their voices competing for God's attention, growing louder and louder until I could talk to Nanna and nobody would know.
"Don't go up there," I'd beg her. "Stay here with me."
"I've got to go in a minute," she'd explain. "Lord knows, if I don't get on my knees after this kind of sermon, I won't never be welcome in my own house again."
"What do you do up there?" I'd ask her.
"Just bow my head and thank the Lord for you, and then I sing a little song or something. Don't matter what you do. Long as you go up there."
"I don't want you to leave me here," I'd say.
"Well, come on up with me. God knows, the whole congregation will be up there anyway before Herman lets us out."
So during the altar call, Nanna approached the altar, and whoops went up all over the church, and people cried, and I heard my own mamma hollering out, "Thank you, Jesus." I went up there with her, and I could hear Grandpa proclaiming, "Lord, we thank you for the youth of this church, for the children who understand sin, understand their own hearts, the children with so much love inside them that they can offer it back to their own elders, who are sinners. Lord, I thank you for my sweet Ninah."
And I smiled to myself, thinking, "I ain't his sweet nothing," and then I nudged Nanna and kept saying my ABCs, imagining them first upper case, then lower, thinking that periodic trips to the altar made a good impression. My whole family would appreciate me more, at least for the rest of that week.
Copyright 1995 by Sheri Reynolds
Though The Rapture of Canaan is my second published novel, it's not the second one I wrote. After my first novel Bitterroot Landing was published, I decided that "real writers" did research. I hadn't researched anything yet. (When I was writing Bitterroot Landing, whenever I got stuck, I made things up - or created magical characters to get me out of the jam.) So I decided to research and write about the funeral industry. My main character was a mortician, and I studied mortuary science and visited funeral homes, and then I put together this enormous novel and submitted it to my agent. Not long afterwards, my agent sent it back with a note that said I'd written an embalming manual, not a novel. She said nothing happened in my book, and my characters were "gratuitously ugly," and that I should stick it in a box and bury it. She also said something along these lines: "You're a southern girl. You know all about tobacco farming and religion. Why don't you write a book about that?"
I was devastated, naturally. The book was hundreds of pages, so it was hard for me to just let it go. I was also really angry with my agent, and I decided that if she wanted a "southern" story, if she wanted to know about growing up around tobacco farms and fundamentalist Christianity, then that's what she'd get!
The Rapture of Canaan was written in my urgent, righteous fury. I drafted the book in about six weeks, and nothing before or since has ever been easier to write.
I'd grown up in a church that operated through fear-rhetoric, and I suspected that many people who underwent conversion experiences did so because they were afraid they'd burn in Hell otherwise. I went to Vacation Bible School classes each summer where we were told stories of all the terrible things that would happen if we were left behind when Christ returned. We read books about how to win souls to Christ, and we read Ernest Angsley's terrifying novel Raptured. (At least it was terrifying to me when I was ten.). It seemed to me that a lot of the Christians around me relished the idea of sinners going to Hell, and it bothered me a lot that the passion in the church centered on Hell rather than Heaven, on fear of God rather than love of God. I put some of my feelings about those experiences into The Rapture of Canaan. The most autobiographical part of the book is the place where Ninah stands before the faucet in the middle of the night, unable to turn it on because she's scared the Rapture has happened and all the water's been turned to blood. This book was fueled by memories like that one, memories of nights when I was too terrified to turn on the water.
Ultimately, I think a novel was the right literary form to use in processing my religious confusion. I knew that if I wrote it as a nonfiction piece, it would be too accusing, too moralistic, and I knew that if I wrote about a religious community that looked identical to the one I grew up in, I'd alienate the readers I wanted most (my momma, grandma, aunts and cousins). What I really wanted was for my sister to keep my niece from growing up with that same kind of fear. (I should admit here that my sister didn't have the kind of fear I did. She just followed the simple steps to salvation and was done with it. Meanwhile...I was standing in front of the sink, scared to turn on the water.) So when I wrote the book, I kept the doctrines and the feeling of church-meetings. I hope I also kept the warmth of the community in its better moments. But I added in many things that were unrecognizable, like Grandpa Herman's rule book. I borrowed from medieval law-codes and penitentials and interspersed them with the beliefs my family still holds today. Nobody got buried alive, or forced to walk on acorns, or dunked or anything like that in the church I grew up in. But as with the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind, we were absolutely forbidden to question the beliefs we'd been taught.
People ask me a lot whether I'm Ninah, and the answer is no. I've never written a character to represent me, though parts of me are inside every character I write. In The Rapture of Canaan, Ninah holds many of my fears. Like Ninah, I often felt misunderstood, like an outcast even in my own family. But I am also very much like other characters. Sometimes I use my fiction to explore the parts of myself that I like or understand the least. I've got a good helping of Grandpa Herman in me. I hope he's not only a tyrant, but also lovable and sympathetic in his desire to keep his family close. I'm sometimes as rigid as Ninah's mother, and as fond of rules (like all rule-lovers, I want to be pleasing). I've got a lot of Corinthian Lovell in me, too, though. Maybe I'm most like Corinthian Lovell - the holy-roller outlaw.