Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

-by Virginia Stem Owens

True Reformed Grit

I Read It in the Wordless Book

By Betty Smartt Carter

Baker Book House

398pp.; $13.99, paper

I once heard a speaker at a seminary conference in Texas ask, "If we don't tell the story of Southern Baptists, who will?" Despite the fact that he had quite a different story in mind than I did, the question has haunted me ever since. Churchgoing Protestants in general remain one of the most underrepresented segments of American society in our national fiction today. New York publishers, hungry for spirituality themes, nevertheless consider even fictional evangelicals toxic. And despite the boom in formula fiction produced for the Christian Booksellers market, few religious publishers are willing to take a chance on novels attempting to depict with any degree of realism what life as a Southern Baptist might look like.

Ever since the midnineteenth century, when Hawthorne pilloried his ancestors as exemplars of pietistic hypocrisy, few novelists have taken a serious look at the lives of devout dissenters in this country. Early in this century, Sinclair Lewis set the trend by satirizing the Protestant subculture with his straw preacher, Elmer Gantry, just as he exposed businessmen in Babbitt and doctors in Arrowsmith. But while business and medicine have both survived as acceptable subjects for novels, Protestant piety seems stuck in Lewis's satiric mold. One can, of course, find realistic treatments of other religious traditions. Chaim Potok has given us a fascinating series of novels set within Orthodox Jewish communities in this country. And more recently Jon Hassler has explored the lives of Catholic priests serving all-too-realistic congregations in small Minnesota towns. But Protestants have been depicted either as bizarre backwoods loners, as in Flannery O'Connor's self-proclaimed expressionism, or as John Updike's lapsed suburbanites, who lack even the exoticism of Graham Greene's whisky priest.

No one, it appears, wants to take on the formidable task of depicting a Protestant family whose weeks are measured by the schedule of church services, prayer meetings, and women's circles--despite the fact that a hefty percentage of the population marks time precisely by that ecclesiastical clock. Thus Betty Smartt Carter and her publisher, Baker Book House, deserve credit for giving us a realistic portrayal of an insular ethnic Protestant community. I Read It in the Wordless Book, Carter's first novel, reveals the heart and soul--as well as the underbelly--of Christianity American style.

Carter's characters, rather than mortifying themselves with barbed-wire undershirts or operating in a perpetual alcoholic haze, are reasonably sane citizens whose sins nevertheless create significant conflict. They plot their life's course on the grid of the Dutch Reformed tradition, not in the Holy Land of Michigan, but in the Shenandoah Valley, where the surrounding sea of Baptists makes them even more conscious of their special calling to theological and ethnic purity. If, as T. S. Eliot said, dogs are as much a part of British religion as bishops, then it is pastry and covenantal baptism that fill out the sacred equation in Dutch Falls, Virginia, where the bread of heaven is oliebolen and the fruit of the vine is never fermented. (A note to readers more familiar with drinking Dutch Calvinists than the dry variety: In the South, to judge from Carter's report, they disapprove of "the three B's"--beer, blasphemy, and bedroom scenes on TV.)

The Grietkirk family, a pillar of the "F.R.C. of V.," boasts two sons, one a real estate lawyer and the other a missionary working in Southeast Asian refugee camps. Both sons are the pride and joy of their widowed mother, who herself took on the task of raising Carolyn, the missionary's daughter, after his wife's death. The fly in the family ointment is the brothers' sister. Jo, a loose-living divorcée, left Dutch Falls years ago for the bright lights of New York, to the everlasting disappointment of their mother.

The story unfolds through the eyes of the 12-year-old Carolyn, and begins with her father's return to Dutch Falls on Independence Day 1976, after an absence of seven years. This momentous event, however, is all but eclipsed by a newcomer to Dutch Falls, Ginger Jordan, the glamorous red-haired wife of a Pentecostal preacher. The Jordans, formerly actors in New York, are having a rough time fitting into the small Virginia town, and the strain is showing in their marriage. To relieve her boredom with the unlikely role of pastor's wife, Ginger Jordan gets the lead in a summer stock musical in Richmond, enlisting Carolyn as her onsite babysitter.

As if these exotic outsiders weren't enough for Dutch Falls to contend with, Carolyn's father springs another alien on his family--his new Vietnamese wife, Phuong, who has learned her Christianity from charismatics in a Guam refugee camp. But Carolyn's stepmother can't hold a candle to the bewitching Ginger. Outrageously exploited by this new "best friend," Carolyn spends the Bicentennial summer concocting a web of deception that allows her to fulfill the actress's extravagant demands on her time. And only the alien stepmother, painfully ignored and isolated within this Christian family, sees the truth behind Carolyn's lies.

This is great material--not just an updated version of Little House on the Prairie meant to instill generic homespun values. The conflicts spring from the "worldly" allure of the theater in tension with the snug familiarity of Dutch Falls, from ethnicity supplanting true religion, from adolescent angst driven by its twin engines of hormones and romanticism. These are people we care about, entangled in problems that matter to us. And Carolyn as a preteen Pilgrim making her way through this Slough of Dutch Despond engages not only our terror and pity, but from time to time our gleeful recognition of the ridiculous.

There is only one problem. This book needed an editor bad. Its 398 pages should have been shrunk to about half that length. Someone needed to take a wrench to the plot, tightening the scenes so they would not audibly clunk. The emotional threads should have been stretched tauter. But because the prose is allowed to amble along, diffusing its sweetness as it goes, the plot becomes implausible, and the characters dissipate their essence. Carolyn's missionary father remains a remote and ineffectual figure who scarcely notices either his daughter or his new wife. Thus it is hard to credit him with the heroic acts breathlessly revealed--but not dramatized--in the concluding chapters. Carolyn's grandmother, whose eye no speck of dust escapes, nevertheless overlooks the repeated deceptions by her ward. The two magnetic poles of the novel-the flamboyant Ginger and the emotionally abandoned Phuong--are only allowed to exert their moral force in the book's final quarter. A good editor would have prompted Carter to whittle the unwieldy proportions of the novel into a more shapely, and thus more effective, form.

The book's want of editing points to a growing problem in publishing today, one that has for some time plagued religious publishers and is now affecting so-called secular houses as well. In the case of the latter establishments, insufficient editing is usually a result of downsizing and the industry's notoriously rapid turnover in staff. Thanks to corporate mergers, the days of Maxwell Perkins's patient collaboration with an over-prolific Thomas Wolfe are gone. Badly edited--even poorly proofread--manuscripts emerge with embarrassing frequency from previously impeccable publishing houses.

Among religious publishers, however, the reasons are somewhat different. Having only recently ventured into the field of fiction, most of them are content to stick with formulaic stuff, but there are brave publishers with larger literary visions: they dream of producing novels that can hold the mirror up to life in order to reflect a reality that includes both sin and grace. Unfortunately, they have embarked upon this enterprise without first equipping themselves with skilled fiction editors. The engine that drives a narrative is quite different from the one that systematizes theology or that seeks to inspire devotion. Using even an expert nonfiction editor to work on a fiction manuscript is like sending a diesel mechanic to break a green horse.

Few manuscripts of any genre are printed in their pristine, untouched state--nor should they be. No religious publisher would dream of bringing out a new biblical commentary without having on their editorial staff a scholar proficient in textual criticism. If they want to see the complex and heretofore unrecorded stories of Southern Baptists--or Dutch Calvinists--included in our national fiction, they need to invest in the resources it takes to do the job right.

That said, the debut of a gifted young novelist is always an occasion to celebrate. Betty Smartt Carter is a writer to watch, with an important story to tell.

Virginia Stem Owens, director of the Milton Center at Kansas Newman College, is the author of many books, including most recently Generations (Lion; UK only).

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 15


Most ReadMost Shared