The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds. Highly recommended.
In The Rapture of Canaan, Sheri Reynolds creates two memorable characters, each of whom in turn creates God in his/her own image.
The first is Grandpa Herman Langston. After surviving a war that his companions didn’t and then losing his infant son, Herman founds his own “brand” of Christianity, The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind. Herman’s church is based on sin, suffering, and punishment — punishing everyone around for his sin of survival. When his granddaughter falls asleep and forgets to say prayers, she is put to bed with cockle burrs and sandspurs. When a member of the congregation imbibes, he must spend a night in his own grave. When the same man fornicates with a girl outside the church (a “backslidden Holiness” named Corinthian), he is starved and imprisoned in a cellar for 40 days — mostly to hide the severity of the punishment Herman has inflicted upon him.
Herman reserves the worst punishment of all for his own wife, who as a child lied to try to hide her mother’s murder of her father. Periodically, Herman trots out Leila’s decades-old transgression as much to punish her as to educate the flock. Recognising that the past is the past, and wise enough to know that God has forgiven her, Leila loves the man, or what he once was, and his strength too much to protest. His needs outweigh hers.
For Herman, religion is control. He decides what is acceptable and what is not; for example, the women must never cut their hair. He decides who and what is punished, and how. He decides what happens to any fines collected. In Herman’s world, the sinner gives up all control to God — the God in Herman’s image.
Lest the reader think that Herman is free from temptation and sin, the other memorable character, granddaughter Ninah Huff, carefully notes all the monetary punishments that are imposed on the members of the community but that never seem to be returned for its common good.
If Herman’s God is a vengeful, controlling one, Ninah’s God is loving and understanding. Ninah and her cousin by marriage, James, are at a dangerous times in their lives, when adolescents discover how powerless punishment can be against the power of passion and love. Unfortunately, James is torn by Herman’s God and by the Jesus he claims speaks through Ninah when they make love.
Ninah, however, continues the questioning they had begun about what it means to love God and one another, and what it means to be a Christian in a world where good people like her Hindu friend from school are non-believers. Is it about seeing a miracle messiah in Ninah and James’ baby Canaan, born with the skin of his hands bonding them in seemingly endless prayer? Or is it about seeing God as love, the love that drives Ninah to brutally cut Canaan’s hands apart so that he can be free to be a sinful and real human being?
Through her affection for James, Ninah discovers the love of God in her own heart. Her God is, by definition, beyond control. James and Ninah can’t and don’t control their natural feelings and urges. Ninah begins to understand the perpetual school truant, Corinthian, whose lack of control is expressed in an exuberant, “Whee, Jesus!”
Eventually, Herman starts to lose control over the community. Some of the congregation, his own family, stop attending services. Ninah starts twisting Pammy’s hair into forbidden French braids. Ninah cuts off her own hair and is followed by several of the women, young and old. When a stroke incapacitates him physically and mentally, Herman’s grip on the community is finally lost, enabling Ninah to take the final step of setting Canaan’s hands free.
Blood is the recurring theme of The Rapture of Canaan — the blood Leila’s mother shed when she killed her husband and the symbolic blood red Leila colours her paper dolls; the blood of menstruation that Ninah hides from everyone, even Leila (Nanna); the blood of James’ first deer kill that baptizes both him and Ninah; the blood of the mare that hemorrhages to death while giving birth; the blood that Canaan must sacrifice as Ninah transforms him from messiah to ordinary baby, conceived and born in the sin of love.
As Nanna recounts stories and Ninah weaves stories into rugs made from “rags and lies, rope and hair, fabric and love,” Reynolds captures the poetry of prose. “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,” Ninah begins. She sees The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind’s community “like an island. Like an island sinking from the weight of fearful hearts.” Ninah says of James, “He brushed my back off each time, and his hands felt like a remedy to all the badness I’d ever known.” She spends her pregnancy making baby clothes. When she sees Canaan’s joined hands in church, she thinks for a moment, “I might have sewn him together by accident when I was making all those baby clothes.”
Poetic, thought provoking, and compelling, The Rapture of Canaan should make you question your own beliefs and where they originated — in the fear of man or in the love of God.
16 April 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf