By Monica West
304 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
For those of us reared among Southern evangelicals, revivals were a mixed bag: a week’s worth of dull evening services and nose-in-the-air pastors paired with kickball in the gym, tea cakes and punch served in fellowship halls. For adults, there were deep dives into the Scriptures, obscure texts such as Amos (Old Testament) and Philemon (New). For children, there were competitions: The grade-schooler who lassoed the most friends would take home a prize, often a gilt-edged Bible with a ribbon bookmark. One year I cheated by pooling my group with my younger sister’s, guilty of the sin of covetousness.
In “Revival Season,” her atmospheric, layered debut, Monica West probes that annual rite, when evangelicals are called to go forth and preach to all nations. West steeps her tale in a rich broth of religious ardor and personal betrayal. Each summer the Hortons, a Black Baptist family, trek in their minivan from their home in Texas to small towns scattered across the South, “bringing the word of God like manna to the starving.” Samuel, the patriarch, preaches the Gospel to crowds gathered in tents and brick chapels. West’s 16-year-old narrator, Miriam, watches in awe as her father lays his hands on the afflicted, healing them.
She and the rest of her family — her stoic mother, Joanne; her younger siblings, Caleb, a youth aspiring to the cloth, and Hannah, disabled by cerebral palsy — grapple with a secret: During the previous summer, Samuel struck a pregnant teenager who had sought his counsel. A current of violence thrums through him. In North Carolina, he beats up a blind man who accuses him of fraud, an act cordoned off by deacons but surreptitiously observed by his daughter, whose hero worship leaks from her like helium from a balloon. West evokes Miriam’s naïveté — and awakening — to brilliant effect. “Papa knew all the verses in the Bible and could recite them on command,” she says. “He could make small talk about everything, from weather to car engines. Now he sat in the middle of the sagging mattress, completely silent.”
[ Read an excerpt from “Revival Season.” ]
Word of the pastor’s abuse gets around. After the tour stalls, the Hortons return to Texas, each reeling from the implosion of this season. Samuel resumes shepherding his home flock but his demons plague him; congregants decamp for other churches (a typical occurrence among evangelicals in the wake of scandal). Joanne struggles with an unwanted pregnancy and pines for her pre-marriage pleasures, music and dance. And Miriam loses her best friend when Samuel insults the girl’s father.