Quirky, sympathetic characters propel this finely hewn first novel by Tennessee poet and journalist Arnoult.
The author brings together two very different Southern families when white, 50-year-old Gracie Hollaman hears voices and believes Jesus is directing her to leave her middle-class North Carolina home and make her way to Rockrun, Va., the home of her African-American nanny from childhood, Tootsie Mae. Toot and her widowed daughter-in-law Mattie find Gracie unconscious on the grave of Toot’s son Arty. Though she doesn’t initially recognize her former charge, Toot takes her discovery as a sign from heaven and gives the strange woman the biblical name Rachel. Meanwhile, Gracie’s husband Ed, until now scarcely able to cope without his wife to make him deviled eggs, learns to cook rather spectacularly over her many months’ absence by watching Chef Bernard on TV. Furious, blameful daughter Ginger opens her own Dixie Donut business and can’t fathom why her mother would desert them. In Rockrun, Gracie develops her talent at painting religious scenes on impermanent materials such as car parts. But when Toot finally identifies Gracie from a birthmark, she has to be officially hospitalized and the relatives informed of her whereabouts. We learn from Toot’s conversation with the local sheriff that when Gracie was eight, her father committed suicide and her mentally ill mother was sent to a sanitarium. Arnoult knows that her characters take deadly seriously their Christian visions, inner voices, biblical passages and hometown reverend. Her colloquial narrative constantly shifts points of view and skates a fine line between irony and endorsement—or is it proselytizing? Her characters demonstrate tremendous grit, especially passionate, hard-edged Toot and once-pitiable Ed, whose growing self-knowledge allows him to minister to the loveless spinster saleswoman of his dreams, Parva Wilson. Ultimately, everyone rushes toward a triumphant spiritual transformation.
Deeply felt, though the author’s Christian message is sometimes heavy-handed.