In the fictional town of Peaches, California, climate change is taking its toll in more ways than one. Drought has ravaged its agricultural fields, which once produced grapes in abundance. In the wake of terrestrial and cultural destruction, an opportunist has swept in, as opportunists are wont to do. The town, waterless and nearly hopeless, is now covered in fly carcasses, soda, dust and glitter. Lots of glitter.
This is the setting for Portland author Chelsea Bieker’s stunning debut novel, “Godshot,” and the place where we meet 14-year-old Lacey May. Lacey lives with her mother, who has alcoholism, and with whom she attends Gifts of the Spirit, a cult church led by the charismatic, nefarious Pastor Vern.
It isn’t difficult for Vern to win the loyalty of the parched people of Peaches. He promises precipitation, and one short-lived rain spell convinces people that he has a direct line to God through his “God hole,” the bald spot on his head. The rest of his manipulative arsenal is glitzy: a liberal use of glitter in his services and on his car, 10 stereos blasting bagpipe music, guns, baptism by soda, and the most powerful weapon of all — words.
Vern’s words enchant the town just as Bieker’s enchant the reader. But the author’s language is much more luxurious her villainous character’s. “Godshot” follows Lacey from the day of her first period — an important milestone for girls of Gifts of the Spirit, though at first she doesn’t know why — through a series of excruciatingly painful awakenings and a liberation she could not have imagined. But at the core of the narrative is an exploration of motherhood, “motherloss” and a question Lacey asks herself early in the book: “Where [do] women go when this happen[s]?”
Despite the fact that, in many ways, it is men’s power that creates the storm Lacey must weather, this is a book about women.
When Lacey’s mother relapses and runs off with a motorcycle-riding cowboy, Lacey moves in with her grandmother Cherry, whose loss of her own mother as a young girl is no comfort to her granddaughter. Lacey soon learns that Cherry, who still drives the purple hearse that once carried Lacey’s Grampa Jackie, also keeps company with small, taxidermied animals and countless fly larvae, and will treat her granddaughter according to Vern’s brand of patriarchy. Of her grandparents, Lacey says: “[They were] rich, but farmer rich is different. … Now we wanted life to be as gold as God glitter.”
Bieker deftly describes the desire for something gold as rooted in the base human need for mothering — that is, for comfort and safety. Under climate change, the earth — often referred to as a mother, of course — is dry, unable to nurture the people who once relied on it. “The land was like a person we missed,” Bieker writes. Abandoned by her own mother, Lacey observes, “I missed my mother in each place in my body, that my neck had stiffened and knotted, that all my sadness was stored in those knots and if I pressed a finger into the largest most painful one, tears arrived behind my eyes as if on command.”
In the rendering of loss, which occurs over and over in the body and the narrative, “Godshot” shines. It also glimmers in its hypnotic prose, in its use of humor and color and sensual detail and its unflinching portrayal of the ways people hurt each other, and how they show up for each other.
Lacey’s journey is not all pain, though there is plenty of it, as well as misogyny and abuse. But “Godshot” brims with hope, even a deep sense of love and forgiveness. It beams through the edges as we root for Lacey in her tenacious search — for her mother, for meaning, for ways to adapt and for justice. She is not alone in this search, which can also be called coming-of-age; with the help of some sex workers in a red house on the outskirts of town, Lacey’s idea of family expands, and with it, so does her own empowerment.
“Godshot” is an utterly readable novel, though it is not always easy. It does not flinch away from the worst sides of humanity. But it doesn’t shy away from earnestness either, and is generous with its faith — not in Vern, but in love. It is very much a corporeal narrative, felt in the bones and skin of the reader. The site of reckoning with grief and power is always one’s body, and that is true for Lacey, too. “My body had enclosed what happened somewhere inside,” Bieker writes. “The body always knows.”
“Godshot” by Chelsea Bieker, Catapult, 336 pp., $26