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by Lee Smith

Pub Date: May 24th, 1995
ISBN: 0-399-14050-6
Publisher: Putnam

 Smith's 11th work of fiction (The Devil's Dream, 1992, etc.) is a straightforward, amiable narrative of Christian faith and redemption--a cautionary tale of innocence, disbelief, debauchery, and witness. Florida Grace Shepherd's wide-eyed confession begins on the fringes of Christianity. Her itinerant preacher father is an illiterate follower of that old-time religion who demonstrates his faith by handling snakes, drinking poison, and listening to the voices that guide him. When the family sets up in Scrabble Creek, North Carolina, young Grace secretly enjoys some of the modern amenities of 1950's life, even though her Daddy continues to live by ``signs and wonders'' in a world wholly determined by Divine Providence. The family's austere life is just one more test of faith, shattered only by an older son's dissent: he insists on taking his young brother to a hospital. One by one, Grace's siblings also break away when into their lives slithers Lamar, who can ``sniff out the bad'' in the 14-year-old girl. Even her father, meanwhile, for all his self-righteousness and sense of election, is rumored to backslide on the road, and his churchly antics bring down the law. And Lamar seems to have enjoyed all the Shepherd women, including Grace's long-suffering mother, whose torment leads to suicide. Eventually, Grace and her Daddy hit the road, but no one now supports the notorious preacher and he takes up with booze and floozies. Grace marries Travis Word, a kind and honest preacher more than twice her age, but their loveless marriage results in her adultery and decline; grandmother at 38, she finally reconciles herself to her long dormant faith while wandering through a Christian-themed miniature-golf course. Though Virgil Shepherd descends from Hazel Motes, there's none of Flannery O'Connor's biting humor here: Smith treats her characters with more sympathy than theological vigor, which makes for a heartrending book.