Throughout the centuries, faith healing — the practice of curing a person mentally or physically with the help of divine intervention — has been popular across many religions. The method often involves prayer and chanting and rituals such as the laying-on of hands. Although the evidence for such healing is debated, books and movies based on this and other related topics tend to attract public attention. A prime example is “Elmer Gantry,” a controversial 1920s novel written by Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis. The story concerns a corrupt preacher who joins a devout woman and her revivalist church, with tragic consequences. A movie adaptation, released in 1960, won several Academy Awards and continues to draw viewers.
Now a debut offering, a coming-of-age tale entitled “Revival Season,” penned by Monica West, examines how faith healing can be tested in our times.
The place is the American South. The characters are the Hortons, members of a Black evangelical family. The narrator, 15-year-old Miriam, is a girl of steadfast faith, who reads the Bible, prays regularly and obeys her parents, even when mistreated. To her, “doubt was a sin.”
Miriam’s father, Reverend Horton, a troubled preacher, is abusive toward his family. He’s believed to possess supernatural healing powers and insists that “fear was as useful a tactic as any to bring people to Christ.” During the novel’s summer of consequence, as is the routine, the family crowds into a minivan and crosses state borders to reach localities where the Rev. Horton will conduct a series of revival meetings. At each stop, the family is well received. Worshippers, in a celebratory mood, line up to listen to the reverend. They eagerly wait to receive blessings that would cure their ailments and return them to a path of wholeness.
Miriam, who is always present at these ceremonies, trusts her father’s ability to perform this function. “A failed healing could be the result of a faith issue,” or so she tells herself.
Gradually, though, doubts creep into her mind when she secretly observes a violent scene between her father and a man who seeks healing, with no one else present. On another occasion, she notices how her father’s “healing face flashed murderous,” when addressing a rebellious 13-year-old girl. As if that’s not evidence enough, Miriam wonders why her father is unable to alleviate the suffering of Hannah, his 7-year-old daughter, who has contracted cerebral palsy.
In yet another incident, Mikah, Miriam’s best friend, approaches her with a cry for help. It appears that the Rev. Horton has been unable to offer her relief from her physical pain. Miriam tries her hand at healing and, much to her amazement, she succeeds.
Now Miriam is torn. Does she possess the power to heal, when the church says women are not entitled in that regard? And does she tell anyone?
Rumor about Miriam’s success spreads, of course. Soon other ailing individuals start to seek Miriam out quietly for her to perform her magic. Miriam consents, but with much hesitation. What if her father finds out? Would she incur his wrath and end up in a confrontation with him? And, ultimately, does she have the power to heal? Does her father?
The rest of the book deals with these questions. Miriam’s voice is quiet but assured. We, readers, trust her ability to lead us on this breath-stopping journey. The faith issue predominates. And although Miriam occasionally dwells on the background of her mother, and also gives us a behind-the-scenes view of her parents’ marriage, the narrative seems to be too tightly focused.
Such a quibble aside, this is a remarkable book for this season, astounding in its power to transport the reader to another universe. “Revival Season” assures that Monica West is a writer to watch.