Monday, November 8, 2010

The Scent of Lilacs

The Promiscuous Reader will try almost anything once, so it should come as no surprise that I recently made my first venture into the murky world of Christian women's inspirational fiction. I'm not sure why Ann H. Gabhart's The Scent of Lilacs (Revell, 2005) caught my attention in the library display -- maybe it's because we had lilacs in our yard when I was growing up -- but it did. It turned out to be a better read than I expected, too. There Be Spoylers ahead, but if you decided to read the book and couldn't see them coming, you'd be a less perspicacious reader than I.

The Scent of Lilacs is set in the little town of Hollyhill, Kentucky, in the year 1964. Forty-four year old David Brooke runs the local weekly newspaper and is an aspiring minister, due to a call he received while a submarine crewman during World War II. He lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter Jocelyn and his elderly aunt Love (short for Lovella). To make his ambitions more difficult, his wife Adrienne abandoned him seven years before, moving to California with their older daughter Tabitha, and getting a Reno divorce along the way. David is being considered for a semi-permanent position with a local church, but he's philosophical about his longterm chances given his history.

Jocie is a high-spirited kid, more of a help at the newspaper office than as a support to her father. Aunt Love tries to keep her in line with a barrage of Bible quotations, but with only fitful success. Abetting Jocie is the old motorcyclist and mechanic Wes, a relative newcomer to Hollyhill who claims to be from Jupiter and keeps the press going. He also keeps Jocie supplied with the science fiction and other books he reads. Jocie's first break comes when she finds a scruffy stray dog in a neighboring field; she'd been praying regularly for a dog, and for her sister to come home. She names the dog Zebedee.

Not surprisingly, Tabitha (now twenty years old) turns up on the porch one evening, without her mother but (spoiler, but really, can't you see it coming?) suffering from morning sickness contracted from a drummer she knew in California. Tabitha has refused the options of abortion (favored by her mother and the drummer) and adoption, and wants to keep her baby. (There are hints of even more serious transgressions in Tabitha's past, but only hints so far.) This causes less of a hullabaloo than you'd expect for small-town Kentucky in 1964. Even Aunt Love, who spotted Tabitha's baby bump right away, puts a lid on her Bible quotations. Only one person in the whole town is bothered by the prospect of their minister having a harlot for a daughter, and he's the villain of the book. The climax of the book is a bit melodramatic, with some more steamy revelations, but Gabhart is saving up her characters for the two sequels she will write in the next couple of years.

I'm not sure I believed any of this, though I'm sure things like it did happen from time to time. But I enjoyed the fantasy, just as I enjoy David Levithan's fantasies of gay teenagers coasting comfortably through high school with a minimum of hassle. The characters are likable, and their religiosity isn't intrusive; I admit I'd expected a lot more Bible beating than I found here.

It confirmed my feeling that religion itself isn't a separate category of existence or thought, for all that feeling puts me at odds with so many other atheists (and religious believers too). I don't quote the Bible, though I can do so for my purposes as well as many Christians, but I mine any number of other sources for proverbial wisdom: Heathers, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Raising Arizona, the Butthole Surfers, and much more. I get as much mileage from these as Aunt Love gets from Scripture, and probably as much or as little effect on other people. Jocie doesn't seem particularly snowed by the Bible so much as by Aunt Love's great age and by her prodigious memory (failing though the latter is).

Prayer is similar. As I've indicated before, it feels reasonable and "natural", whatever that is, to want to thank somebody for good things that happen to us without visible human agency, and to complain about the bad ones. Prayer looks to me like talking to oneself, or thinking aloud; it's often a form of meditation, and often a sideways way to talk to other people. It's pretty overt when Jocie prays like this at dinner right after finding her dog:
Thank you, Lord, for Zebedee. I'd begun to worry you didn't mean for me to have a dog, but Aunt Love says the Bible says to keep asking, so that's what I did. And I thank you that you let Zebedee find me [17].
"David," Gabhart the narrator comments, "heard Aunt Love pull in a little puff of breath and knew her heart wasn't feeling a bit thankful."

It's more subtle but still clear when David prays later on:
Dear Lord, forgive us our sins this day and help us to be full of forgiveness toward others. Especially send down your loving-kindness on Aunt Love this night and help her make peace with her past. Give Tabitha courage and strength and love. Bless Jocie and help her to do what's right. Use me, Lord, in your service and help me know how to help others in their spiritual journeys [243f].
This translates easily into more direct address to Aunt Love, Tabitha, and Jocie, with God as the intermediary. And no doubt it's easier to communicate to them if you don't have to address them directly.

None of this means that I'm going to begin praying myself. If anything, understanding these functions of prayer strengthens my feeling that religion serves very mundane purposes. It doesn't make it more true, but I see why people continue to use it.

Gabhart's generosity to and compassion for her characters was very satisfying. I also liked very much Leigh, the thirtyish Elvis Presley fan who has set her cap for David. Again, I'm not sure I believe everyone's tolerance toward her musical tastes and her fondness for dancing, but that doesn't keep me from rooting for her. Those are qualities I appreciate in anything I read. Whether it's typical of inspirational fiction I don't know -- I've read almost none except for Frank Peretti's best-selling This Present Darkness and the first Left Behind book, both of which are notably short on generosity and compassion. But I think I might look at the sequels to The Scent of Lilacs.