Thursday, January 6, 2011

You Take the High Road, and I'll Take the Low Road

Once again I've dipped my toes into the laughing waters of Christian women's inspirational fiction. This time it was Angela Hunt's She's in a Better Place (Tyndale House, 2009) on a display rack at the public library that caught my attention with the saturated colors of its cover. When I leafed through it, I found that the protagonist, Jennifer Graham, is finishing her training as a mortician, a slightly untraditional vocation for a conservative Christian woman, even if she does view her work as a "ministry."

It turns out that She's in a Better Place is the third volume in a trilogy, though author Hunt did a good job of filling in backstory so that I didn't feel any need to go back to the previous volumes. Jennifer Graham, divorcee and mother of two, inherited the Fairlawn Funeral Home in a small Florida town and decided to make a go of it. (Her cheating ex died shortly after they were divorced, which was evidently both satisfying to her sense of justice and highly guilt-inducing.) Mentored by the much older Gerald Huffman, a former minister, she's about to take her exams and become a licensed mortician when when it's discovered that Gerald has a terminal illness. Jennifer knows that the widowed Gerald has an estranged daughter, the single mom of a granddaughter he's never met, so she decides to try to bring about a reconciliation.

The daughter, Kirsten, appears at the door of the funeral home with young Katie in tow, but does her best to stay hard-boiled until the novel's closing pages. It seems she'd always been "rebellious": neither her pious parents nor Jesus himself could keep the Devil out of her. The final break came when she got involved in the (gasp!) theater and performed in a little-theater production of Hair, complete with nude scene. She and her father tell conflicting versions of whether she ran away or was thrown out, but whatever happened, she cast the dust of Mt. Dora from her feet.

Standing over her father's casket, she wrestles with her demons:
She closes her eyes against the battering memories and wills them to go away. Her father is dead, her mother, too, and they cannot influence her anymore. They cannot criticize; they cannot leave her feeling as though she will never measure up to their standards. …

What standards, Kirsten? What did we ask you to do?

"To be perfect," she hisses through clenched teeth.

We asked you to obey. To obey us and God.

"Well, okay. Obeying the Almighty is a pretty tall order – don’t you think? Not everyone can dot every i and cross every t. Not everyone wants to be a saint. Some people want normal lives."

We weren’t perfect, and we never expected you to be. We only wanted you to love God. Everything else would have fallen into place.

"Where you wanted it to be."

Where God wanted you to be.

… Except for the accusations of a guilty conscience, she is alone [309-10].
Cathartic though this is meant to be (for the reader, anyway), it embodies the problems with this kind of religious faith. What a coincidence that what her parents wanted just happened to be what God wanted too! It's a handy way of evading responsibility for one's choices. Before his death the saintly Gerald admits his failures in principle, but what else could he do with such a willful, wayward daughter? Being the kind of Christian he is, he's not going to claim to be perfect, but he neither acknowledges nor sees any actual shortcomings on his own part, denies that he kicked Kirsten out of the house, and blames her for running away. But not all Christian parents agree on where to draw the line. And given the ambivalent fatalism these pious Christians embrace, how can they know that standing naked on a stage and giving birth out of wedlock wasn't where their God wanted Kirsten to be? There's plenty of standard not-my-will-but-thine in She's in a Better Place, but that leads to contradictions it never resolves. (In the same way, all good Christians know that death means Going Home to Be With Jesus, yet they don't really seem to believe it. They know as well as Sappho did that death is not a good thing.)

The religiosity in She's in a Better Place feels rather rote to me. Prayer happens frequently, but it's done quickly and by the numbers. You could excise the Christian references without doing much damage to the flow of the novel. But maybe that's just the atheist in me talking.

She's in a Better Place is also a good example of what James Barr was talking about when he wrote over thirty years ago that "the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial" (Fundamentalism [Westminster, 1977], 328). Jennifer has something going on with handsome and eligible lawyer Daniel Sladen who seems to be a lifelong bachelor, a trait that in a middle-aged man is rather suspicious, I'd say, especially since Jennifer herself describes him as "lavishly tressed" (28), but in Angela Hunt's world he just hasn't met Miss Right yet -- or hadn't until he met Jennifer. Their relationship isn't really developed, but then it doesn't need to be: God meant Man and Woman to come together, and in the end Jennifer and Daniel do just that. Meanwhile, Daniel gives some manly advice on the Woman Question to Jennifer's younger son Bugs, who's trying to get Katie to be his "girlfriend." They're both about seven -- talk about the sexualization of children!

Hunt is not one to let a cliche get away from her. Among the secondary characters is a hairdresser named Ryan, who freelances for the funeral home now and then. Ryan provided the closest this novel had to real suspense for me: would Angela Hunt give her readers a gay male character, or would Ryan also find his Miss Right? Not in this trilogy. After Gerald has died and Jennifer and Ryan have prepped him for the funeral, they have this exchange:
We stand by the side of the casket for a long moment, and only when I see movement from the corner of my eye do I realize that Ryan is sobbing. I slip my arm around his waist. "I understand," I whisper, not knowing what else to say. "I’m going to miss him, too."

"He never judged me," Ryan fans his face as if he could cool the sudden emotional surge. "A lot of people in this town don’t have much use for me outside the salon, but Gerald saw me as a regular person. I think he understood – you know, the things I struggle with – but he never condemned me. He just kept urging me to follow Jesus" [305-6].
I can't decide whether to give Hunt credit for letting Ryan be gay and almost say so, or to despise her for not letting him do anything about it but "struggle with" it. I'd say she's lukewarm, so I spew her out of my mouth.

Still, I admit freely that Angela Hunt is a pro. She kept her story moving, juggles her several plotlines skillfully, and delivers the kind of satisfying, inspiring read her readers want. She has a slightly forced sense of humor that reminds me of fellow Southerner Rita Mae Brown. Still, I can't say I care to look at more of her work. I still would like to read more of Ann Gabhart's novels, though, and one more inspirational book at the library has caught my eye: a thick historical novel about World War II. At the moment, though, I'm in the middle of Rudolfo Anaya's Chicano classic Bless Me Ultima, and I'm finding it heavy going; more on that once I've finished it.