Lay It on My Heart
“As it is, Lay it on my Heart is an excellent work, and Angela Pneuman reveals herself to be among the best of her generation.”
In the early pages of her debut novel, Lay It on my Heart, Angela Pneuman reveals a great deal of important information in a single, brief passage, narrated in the voice of 13-year-old Charlaine Peake:
“Outside, the sky is a low, humid ceiling. Everything under it is muddled with heat. We head north out of town, past the campus of the East winder Seminary, past the retirement home named after my grandfather, the famous evangelist Custer Peake. Daze, his widow, lives there now. We pass the tree streets—Elm, Maple, Walnut—that dead-end at the seminary’s neglected athletic field. On a hill in that field stands our huge water tower with the light-up electric cross on top. Underneath that tower, before I was born, Custer Peake led more than four hundred people to the Lord in one of the world’s largest spontaneous revivals. It went on for two weeks. People stood or sat or camped, even. Listening to my grandfather over the PA system someone rigged up on day three. They came from all over, even from other states, once word got out. It made the papers. It made the television news in Lexington and Louisville, both. On day six, my father came home from college in Ohio to see what all the fuss was about, and on day ten, as the sun set my grandfather sent him to meet a delivery truck from Clay’s Corners carrying two hundred loaves of Wonder Bread for communion. That’s when my father spotted her. A petite girl, standing at the edge of the crowd wearing a sun hat and cutoff dungaree shorts and the kind of halter top frowned upon in East Winder. She raised an eyebrow at him like she was waiting for something, like he’d already spoken to her and she hadn’t quite caught it all. Right then and there, before he even knew her name, the Lord laid Phoebe on my father’s heart as the woman he was supposed to marry.”
First and foremost, from this we learn that we are, in this small Kentucky town, in the presence of religious folk. Of the late Custer Peake and his kin. Principle among them is David, Custer Peake’s son, a self-described prophet, who having more or less abandoned his wife and daughter for a year in order to travel to the Holy Land seeking revelation, is about to return as his wife and daughter travel to the airport to meet him.
We are in a place in which retirement homes are named for evangelists. And in which the local seminary is the cornerstone of the economy. Thus, we are in a place of faith, a holy land of sorts, as Custer Peake’s 1973 revival attests, or in a place ripe with myths and ghosts, holy and otherwise.
Wisely, author Angela Pneuman never quite identifies which is which, instead creating a world of believers and unbelievers, mystics, skeptics and trolls and leaves it up to her readers to decide.
This brief quoted passage also reveals the author’s gift for the telling detail—the Wonder Bread, that halter, the neglected athletic field that remains haunted by the ghosts of the delivered from way back in ’73—as well as her skill with narrative. In one paragraph, we get a sense of place and time, an introduction to our main characters, a loop-around to the long-ago occurrence that will give meaning to much of our tale, and a courtship that comes as a gift from God.
No small feat.
Ms. Pneuman also uses this paragraph to play her title card, what with God laying Phoebe on David’s heart and all. Using this simple phrase, our author reveals her knowledge of the world that she has borrowed for her tale—a world in which “lay it on my heart” is at once a prayer and an incantation, if such a word could be used for something that is so much a part of the evangelical world that it may not be questioned, however or whenever it is used. To have God “lay” something on your heart is to have received a personal message from God on high, a revelation of the sort that David the prophet has gone to the Holy Land to receive.
Only the trip has not gone as planned.
While his wife and daughter have been charged to “live on faith alone,” (which means more or less “do the best you can,”) David has walked about seeking splinters of the real cross and water from the River Jordan—relics which he brings back with him in an assortment of baggies that he presents to his daughter as gifts.
The question is, did he also return with a revelation? Has God given him a plan for his own life or for his family or the readership he addresses in a monthly magazine?
When his family first sees him, “he’s dressed like an illustration from the Bible, in a brown robe and rope sandals.”
“Then Phoebe’s hand on my shoulder gets so heavy it hurts.
“‘Oh,’ she says, and suddenly, beneath the beard, I recognize my father. His lips are moving like he’s talking quietly to himself, which means he’s probably receiving prophecy. It can come upon him any time, like a spell.
“‘David,’ Phoebe says. She waves her arms until he sees and heads in our direction. His legs work slowly against the heavy robe, like he’s wading through water. I’m used to thinking of him as a prophet, which some people consider unusual even in a town full of churches as East Winder. But until now he’s always kept his hair short and his face shaved, and he’s always worn regular clothes Phoebe picks out or sews for him. Still, you never know what you’re getting with my father on any given day. ‘The prophet,’ he has said in the past, ‘is different from the man.’”
It is just that difference that Lay It on my Heart deftly observes. Even in a world in which revelation can be an accepted, even expected event, in which debates arise as to whether or not the gift of tongues is a required badge of salvation, in which that which is laid upon your heart is as real and obvious a path as any set down in concrete, and in which history and science are dwarfed by faith, is there a place for a prophet in robe and sandals, his mien as otherworldly wild and unkempt as John the Baptist’s?
Lay It on my Heart is a coming of age story. One in which several characters come of age—Charmaine, the most obvious choice, as struggles with the usual issues of adolescence, her mother Phoebe, who grows from a woman whose personal set of Christian values comes equipped with the notion that the man is the head of the household, neither to be questioned or challenged, and Daze, the grandmother who, having been married to one “man of God” now must wrestle with the possibility that her son has missed the mark.
If there’s a flaw in this gem it is in the fact that once Western medicine raises its ugly head, it is seen (as, admittedly it most often is), as the sole solution, and religion goes out the window. Which seems to run counter to everything we have been told about this family, these people and their view of the world.
Sadly, so many interesting, important questions—Can prophecy be a sign of mental illness and being touched by God, both at the same time? Could anti-psychotic medications actually interfere with God’s revelations? Is the belief of a personal relationship with God itself a sign of mental illness?—are sidestepped, even ignored, after the narrative has been built apparently with the intent to embrace them, if not to actually answer them. And, in ignoring these questions, the story becomes fractured, weakened, seeming at times to babble on, like those speaking in tongues, or like the medicated prophet, as we learn far more about Charmaine’s monthly cycle then we do about her relationship with her father, or by extension, her relationship with God.
So much of the story hinges on the idea of being able to hold two thoughts at once—father and daughter, for instance, struggle with the scripture that demands that we “pray without ceasing” by trying to literally pray a constant Mobius strip of a prayer while carrying on daily conversation—that had the author been able to fully develop this concept by asking the fundamental questions that arise whenever faith and science intersect, and, in doing so, disagree, Lay It on my Heart would have been as superb a novel as this new century has yet produced, and one of the finest to deal with matters of faith in the modern world.
As it is, Lay it on my Heart is an excellent work, and Angela Pneuman reveals herself to be among the best of her generation. The promise has been given of wonderful new stories ahead from this new writer of note, and the reader’s expectations run high that the promise will be soon fulfilled.