I read a book a few months ago that’s not relevant now (in the sense, it’s not on the New York Times bestseller list) and I didn’t think I’d like it. I looked at the cover and thought: No.
I was wrong. You literally cannot judge a book by its cover.
The book is Saving Grace by Lee Smith. It tells the story of a family from the South. They are very poor and very religious. It’s set in the Appalachians and there’s revivals and snake-handling throughout the narrative. The religious fervor of these people, particularly the father, is terrifying. The author puts the reader right in the midst of it and Smith weaves a tale of how religion is everything to the patriarch, as long as it suits him and his agenda.
Florida Grace is a young girl and we see what’s going on in her world through her eyes. Despite her being uneducated and naive, she is very astute, intelligent and observant. She questions why God allows this and doesn’t allow that. She grows up around adults who do many acts in the name of God. Grace’s internal monologue draws the reader in—she questions God, the very thing she’s been taught to revere. She is fearful of this entity fashioned from bits and pieces of the Bible; her father picking and choosing passages that reinforce his beliefs.
From that reverence comes an enormous sense of guilt. So much so, that it stays with her. Her guilt, at times being so weighty, takes her down a destructive path. The ending is heart wrenching.
This isn’t a beach read. It’s a slice of life glimpse into a population that is rarely remembered. Smith dares to go there and she does so, with finesse and empathy.
Florida Grace’s story, so integral to who she is, so interwoven into her life’s path and story, swallows her up.
Striking a Chord
I think we’re all drawn to stories that we can somehow relate to. I’m from the South and perhaps that’s why this resonated with me so much. The point of Smith’s story, as so many great writers try to do, is put the reader in a place where the emotion of a character becomes the reader’s emotion.
This is a great feat and in the hands of a writer who does it so smoothly, it’s like magic. I love being transported to another place and learning, often through fiction, what it would be like to live there, grow up, understand how it could mold me into another form of myself.
One of my favorite quotes is from Rebecca Harding; “One little turn of the rudder and the ship goes to heaven or hell.”
Isn’t that the truth? I always try to think of that before I leap to judge too quickly. I don’t always succeed but I try. The older I get, the more I understand how crucial it is that I do. Things aren’t always what they seem. Neither are human beings. I think we all try to do the best we can with what we have and our “best” is determined by a whole set of variables; all the hows, whys and whats of who we are; our place in the world. My mom always said, “You do better when you know better.”
I think this is relevant now and has been throughout history. We’ve all watched change, some good, some not so good and depending on who you talk to, things are going to hell in a hand basket. To others, it’s about time! But, if you think about the enormous good that has come from upheaval and change over the centuries, it’s amazing.
Change comes from all kinds of individuals from all over this country. It’s not dictated by a particular region or state. It’s made up of a rainbow of voices from every corner.
The Point Please
The point of my post is to invite readers to remember that we all have our stories. Sometimes we forget to listen to others and they forget to listen to ours. The result is a standstill, neither bending or empathizing with the other.
I wrote a paper way back when while attending a small community college. It was sociology and I loved that class. The instructor informed the class that “I got it,” and asked me to read my paper in front of the entire class. Face burning and voice trembling, I did so. I’m sure that’s why I remember it so well. I was singled out for doing something good.
We remember those good things and the worst ones as well. I guess that too, is human behavior.
My paper was about Max Weber and his introduction of the concept of verstehen, which literally means “to understand.” Of course his theories were met with criticism by others, those others believing it’s impossible for one culture to fully understand another.
That may be true to some degree, but I think we can do a good job of it if we really try. That means everyone, even the ones we don’t believe are worthy of respect for whatever reason we’ve deemed them as such. They have their life stories as well. If we try to put ourselves in someone’s else place and look at the world through their eyes, maybe we can understand why they are the way they are and go from there.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.
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Happy Monday everyone. Have you read any books and stories lately that have moved you? Movies? Have you ever judged a book by its cover (literally or metaphorically) only to find out you were wrong?
Great review of “Saving Grace,” Brigitte. I’m not sure I want to read it because it may be “too close to home” if you know what I mean, also having grown up in the South. Fortunately, I never encountered the snake charmers, (it’s my understanding that the Church of God was one that was known for snake charming, speaking in tongues and KKK! We were Baptists.). I think questioning beliefs and then deciding which ones work is a healthy way to live. It sounds like your main character did that, but felt guilty in doing so which ultimately ended in her demise. As my husband says: “Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving.”
Anyhoo, I just finished a great book – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s the story of a Korean family living in Japan over several generations starting prior to WWII and extending into the sixties and how they’re treated, but also how they survive and thrive in a society that scourged them. I highly recommend it.
Thanks for a great post!
I do know what you mean! And I too recall the Church of God…I grew up Protestant and it wasn’t a thing with us either, but it was around. Scary! I believe the book was set in the 60s – ? so it was even worse then as far as the things you’re mentioning. Tough read at times, but worth it. Smith’s writing was top-notch and I’m always a fan of that. Your hubby is right…kind of a useless emotion (guilt) if you keep carrying it. I’ve not heard of that book but it sounds interesting—I will check it out—thanks for recommendation. After a heavy book, I always have to have a nice beach read or a really good suspense novel. :). Thank you for the great comment and insight.
That book sounds intense. I think it would make a good book club read, though I’m not sure I’m up for its emotional wallop.
You’re so right: not everything is as it seems, and that includes people. If we ever want to achieve unity, whether in the world or in our own micro-environments, we have to look beyond our preconceived notions.
It is way intense and yeah, probably not a good idea if you don’t like emotional wallops! 😃 Sometimes I can do them and especially when the writing is good.
It’s tough looking beyond those preconceived notions, isn’t it? I suppose my opinions are a bit idealistic at times, but striving to communicate better is always good for everyone concerned! Thanks Carrie and happy Monday.
“Saving Grace” sounds like quite a read. Thank you for your timely message, Brigitte. I am one of those people who belive that we need bigger tables, not higher walls.
Hey Alan! Great to see you on this fine Monday. And you’re welcome. Thank you for your awesome photos. :).
You are most welcome, Brigitte. It is great to read your posts again.
That’s nice to hear, Alan. :).
Everything and everybody has a history … and stories behind that history.
That is true, but that means everyone, whether we like ‘em or not. Empathy and understanding go along way to quieting tempers. At least, that’s been my experience! Thanks Frank!
Your mom is a wise woman and you, my friend, are as well. What a wonderfully good post– a good reflection on how we should all behave and understand. Words to live by– thanks for being that whispering voice to be good —
I read Hotel Silence– a 49 year old man struggling in his life journey to find purpose — there is a topic for your blog. You are on a roll 🙂
She is a very wise woman. I’m glad you got what I was trying to explain…it has to come from everyone, not just who we think is right! It’s hard when you’re passionate about something but I think it works and I think we have to get back to civility.
I’ve heard Hotel Silence was good! I’m putting that on my reading list. That is a good topic…and where is your poetry? I miss that and I know everyone who reads you does as well.
Others I have on my shelf: The Immoralists, Little Fires Everywhere and The Flight Attendant. Reading a good juicy suspense whodunit right now…:).
Hope your Monday is good, my friend and thank you.
I am reading The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
Oh my…just read the synopsis. That sounds wonderful.