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Seduced by Prayer : An isolated South Carolina religious community becomes completely familiar : THE RAPTURE OF CANAAN, By Sheri Reynolds (Putnam: $22.95; 320 pp.)

February 11, 1996|Sandra Scofield | Sandra Scofield's sixth novel will be published this spring

We know what to expect of a "fresh, new Southern voice," as Sheri Reynolds has been called, and she delivers. A certain folksy lyricism. Overt homage to storytelling tradition. A strong maternal figure--Nanna, the narrator's grandmother and single most sensible character. A powerful, puffing male--grandfather Herman Langston, founder and preacher of the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind. A colorful supporting cast, with names like Mustard and Corinthian and Bethany and Liston. An old secret that colors history and casts shadows on the present. And sin.

Reynolds has accomplished something unique in "The Rapture of Canaan," however. Herein, an isolated South Carolina religious community becomes utterly familiar. Grandpa Herman is the quintessential modern prophet. He rants and raves, he sets laws and metes out punishment, he provokes wailing and speaking in tongues. His little world is made up of relatives--households scattered around his land, praying in his church, working in his fields, eating in his kitchen--except when he declares them all unworthy of nourishment.

The narrator, Ninah Huff, is really just a child, 14 when the book opens, but over the course of nearly two years, she leaves childhood behind forever. In the beginning, she is compliant, but not wholly enthusiastic. Her grandmother has instilled a certain sly skepticism, and Ninah is intelligent and curious. She goes to church, but stands ever so slightly apart. She feels her isolation.

At school, where the community children are sore thumbs in their plain garb and long hair, she is drawn toward friendship with Ajita, child of Indian immigrants. The lending of a pencil becomes a tender gesture of friendship. And at home, Ninah tries to make her shadow different, walking across the fields: "I'd study our shapes bruised on the ground and pull myself up taller or fling out my arms to keep from getting confused about which shape belonged to her and which shape belonged to me." She wants things. She wants to go with the men when they hunt. She wants to be close to James, a boy her age. She knows she's wrong, and she tries to keep herself in line. She puts pecan shells in her shoes. She clamps clothespins on her stomach and her nipples. She prays God will guide her.

But she's coming into young womanhood, and she's terrifically alive, and she dreams of kisses. Nanna isn't blind to all this. Her idea is to take away the clandestine element of Ninah and James' friendship. She coaxes Herman to make them "prayer partners," which means, amazingly, that they have all kinds of time alone, in the woods, in rooms away from the others, all kinds of secret moments to give themselves over to prayer, that most seductive activity.

It's not that they don't know what sex would get them. One teenager, Ben, comes home with beer on his breath and spends the night in an open grave! Later, his sin with Corinthian, a pretty girl from town, merits him 40 days and nights in a cellar. Herman, after all, is the sort of preacher who reminds his flock that his own wife was a sinner as a little girl. (She saw her mother kiss a man, not her father, and she didn't tell.)

But these are kids, and the most furious religion can be bent to the body. Ninah prays, "Help me and James to know your love, to be able to share with each other your love," and James prays, "Let me be the one to show her your love," and well, what do you think that means?

It's like loving Jesus, Ninah says. Jesus, made flesh. Only James knows better, and Ninah does too, deep down, but when she admits she is pregnant, she grasps for Jesus as her excuse. Here, the novel falters some. Ninah's waffling stretches credibility, as if Reynolds didn't quite decide what Ninah ought to believe.

Nevertheless, her lie serves the story well enough, as the community reacts with a kind of shunning condemnation. Of course there is Nanna, and there's a peculiarity about the child, easily interpreted as miraculous. Right away, you can see where the story is headed, but there is a satisfaction in that. It isn't really necessary for the narrator to tell us what she's learned, though she does. It isn't necessary for her to tell us what happens next, and she doesn't. What matters is, she didn't bring on the rapture with her sin: The faucets haven't run red with blood.

Ninah's narration is better when it observes those around her than it is when she tries to explain herself, but her voice is sure and bright and believable. Sheri Reynolds has written a fresh story. As they say in her church, "Hallelujah."

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