Sheri Reynolds was catapulted to widespread attention when Oprah
Winfrey chose The Rapture of Canaan as one of her book
club titles. Reynolds, who teaches writing and literature at the
university level, followed up The Rapture of Canaan with the
magical little novel A Gracious Plenty. With the name
recognition resulting from Oprah's publicity, perhaps Reynolds can become
and remain a worthy mainstay of the literary fiction world today.
Finch Nobles suffered third-degree burns about her face and shoulders
as a toddler when she pulled a pot of boiling water off her mother's
stove. She survived, and healed enough physically to go on living, but
the psychological scars from the event and its aftermath still burn.
The daughter of cemetery caretakers, Finch continues her parents' work
after their deaths. Finch becomes a fixture in her little Southern
hometown, an eccentric, stubborn outcast.
Since her early teens, Finch has been able to talk to and see the
spirits of the dead populating her graveyard. The dead who have yet to
completely "lighten" and ascend are responsible for keeping the world
running. They color growing plants, they bring rain, they tickle the
flowers to surprise them open. Finch tends the graveyard lovingly,
planting real flowers on the graves and planting trees to shade the
departed. She develops a friendship with a young dead beauty queen whose
mission is to force her mother to acknowledge that her death was not a
murder but suicide. Lucy Armageddon, as this young woman has renamed
herself, asks Finch to urge her mother toward that realization. So Finch
mouths the word "suicide" to Lucy's mother whenever they see each other,
otherwise going about her business growing incredible vegetables, tending
graves and sleeping with a veritable army of half-wild cats. The town
children tease Finch cruelly by calling names and by vandalizing the
cemetery, but Finch just keeps on with her life, alone and friendless
in the world of the living.
Lucy's mother finally makes a complaint to the local police and is
granted a restraining order. The order is served by Leonard Livingston,
the grown, disappointing son of the mayor. Leonard and Finch's history
goes all the way back to first grade, when Leonard burst into tears at
the sight of Finch's untimely wizened face and got moved to a different
seat. Leonard's baby brother, the mayor's great hope, lies buried
inside the cemetery gates, where he cries without ceasing, unable to
tell his story and so unable to lighten and ascend. Finch and Leonard
start to forge a tentative truce, although Leonard refuses to believe
that Finch truly speaks with the dead.
The most recent member of the cemetery community is William Blott,
a reticent man whose permanently transient lifestyle prompted the local
women's Sunday School class to make him their project. William is at
first reluctant to speak, but he becomes immediately popular among the
dead of Nobles Hill when he reveals a unique ability to quiet the
squalling Livingston baby. As William reveals more of himself, a discovery
by the church women to whom his property was bequeathed results in a
complete reversal by the town toward his memory. Finch's life becomes
focussed on repairing the rifts between the living and the dead of her
community. As she moves toward a tentative acceptance by and of the
living, she risks losing her relationship with the dead that has moored
her almost all of her life.
Finch Nobles is immensely likable, her voice a gruff and stubborn one
that masks the longing and insecurity hidden inside. A Gracious
Plenty lures the reader quickly into the story, and refuses to
release its hold on your imagination until you've read it through.
This novel of eccentricity and inner beauty transcends the way we often
categorize both the living and the dead. Sheri Reynolds shows rare
talent and inventiveness, and deserves every bit of attention she gets.