There's just something compelling about Southern writing, and there's no disputing the genre's influence on the American literary world (after all, probably a dozen Southern anthologies are published for every one from other geographical regions in the U.S.). Exotic and homey all at once, ranging from the almost bizarre Southern gothic - like Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel - to gentler but no less gripping spellbinders like Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning coming-of-age classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The American South, especially the South as it was half a century and longer ago, is a landscape of contradictions - fevered religious impulses that somehow make a fertile nest in which racial hatred blossoms, a hothouse of human hungers tempered by prim gentility.
Brenda Jernigan's Every Good and Perfect Gift falls on the
Harper Lee end of the Southern fiction spectrum. Narrated by the precocious
Maggie Davidson, who when readers first meet her could be Scout Finch's stunt
double, it's marked by that distinctly Southern dichotomy of steadfast faith and religious hypocrisy, moral uprightness that cloaks itself in the turpitude of white sheets and hoods late at night. Thematic cousin to the likes of Sheri Reynolds' A Gracious Plenty and The Rapture of Canaan, Jernigan's novel throws over the patriarchal tradition of authority to prove the steel in three generations of magnolias - Maggie, blessed by sporadic visions of God (Who also appears as a woman) and occasionally able to channel holy healing power to the sick and disabled; Lily, Maggie's free-spirit mother, abandoned by a charming alcoholic husband and obsessed with movie stars; and Granny Parker, a no-nonsense woman who runs her late husband's farm with a gruff compassion toward her tenants and generally brooks no nonsense.
Maggie's visitations from the Woman bathed in golden light bring to her and hers an unasked for and mostly unwelcome notoriety, not only locally but nationally when Time
magazine features a story on Maggie's gift in 1960. It also attracts the notice
of a young Princeton seminary student groping to find his own faith and hoping
to study Maggie for his graduate degree. Though the two come from different
worlds - he from a moneyed Presbyterian New York stockbroker family, she from a
pedestrian rural North Carolina upbringing - they fall in love. But when tragedy
strikes, Maggie blames her feelings for Alex and shuts him out of her life in
penance. From there, she begins a long journey of discovery to her life's calling and love's truth that widens her circle of family.
Touching on some larger truths about humanity's place in God's wide universe, Every Good and Perfect Gift grounds itself in Maggie's coming of age, the story of one young woman arriving at an understanding of herself, her family and her faith.
This novel works on two levels, the heavenly and the mundane, to weave an
irresistible spell of Southern distinction on readers.