Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: Never Lie Down

Never Lie Down
Author: J. Carol  Goodman
Trade Paperback,  144 pages
Publisher: iUniverse, 2010
Reading Genre:  Literary fiction, historical fiction

Reviewer's Note:  I received this book through Sara Croft, a friend of the author.  She posted a request for reviews on Book Blogs, and I replied.  I have, of course, given the novel an honest review.  This book truly deserves the praise I've given it!

It's nothing short of exciting when one discovers pure literary gold.  I'm not exaggerating, either.  This novel shines!  Since it is self-published, however, it might take a while for it to be read, and given the glowing reviews it deserves. That's unfortunate.  More readers/reviewers should give indie works a chance.  One never knows when a vein of gold will be struck, after all!

Since the novel is so short, I was able to read it practically in one sitting, last night.  I must admit I was somewhat disappointed by its length; I much prefer to read longer works, in which there are plenty of descriptive passages, with complex plots and lots of room for character development.  Nevertheless, I entered the portals of Goodman's world, and was immediately rewarded with a great story! 

Theodora Davis, the twelve-year-old younger daughter of one of the town's two pastors, is the narrator.  She is a very engaging character, with a rather comical combination of innocence and wisdom.  As she vividly portrays the events, which she is retelling as an adult, years later, one cannot help but be touched by her honesty, as well as her bright wit.

The year is 1936, in the middle of the Depression; the setting, a small town in New Jersey.  In spite of the northern setting, the novel does have a very "Southern" feel to it.

Theodora and her friend, Glorybe (this is short for "Gloria Beatrice", her real name) are worried about Glorybe's father, who has suddenly become too sick to work, and is eventually fired.  They start thinking up ways to help raise money for the family, which also consists of Glorybe's mother and brother. 

This is not the only conflict in the novel, however.  It's rivaled by another, deeper one -- the scourge of racial prejudice.  At that time, African-Americans were known as "colored people", and were expected to remain in their "place".  Theodora's family members do not abide by such ridiculous, arbitrary rules.  In fact, in one part of the novel, her mother, Elisabeth, interrupts a town council meeting to demand that one of the streets in the "colored" section of town be re-paved.  One of the residents, a young boy named Dunbar Jones, had lost his life when his bicycle hit one of the street's many ruts, and he fell, hitting his head.  Predictably, Elisabeth and her friends, who include some of the African-American town dwellers, are rebuffed.  In a fit of anger, Elisabeth slaps one of the council members.

Theodora's coming of age is bittersweet for several reasons.  She has a crush on Glorybe's father, whom everyone calls "The Indian" because of his claim to come from a prairie tribe.  She is struggling to come to terms with the strange stirrings of puberty, as well as with the way idealism is frequently crushed by this world's all-too-real cruelty.  Then, the ever-present racial tensions in the town culminate in the arrest of Jeremiah Johnson, an African-American friend of the Davis family, who is wrongly suspected in the murder of his former employer, Strickland, found dead on the banks of the Rahway River.

While this does sound reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Goodman puts an entirely original spin on this theme.  Crucial to the story are Pastor Davis's strong moral convictions, which, ironically, he must betray if he wants to save his friend.  It is not an easy decision for him to make.

Jeremiah Johnson is another very compelling character.  In a beautiful passage of the novel, he describes Heaven to the raptly-listening Theodora.  His words are simple yet poetic at the same time, his faith just as simple and unshakable.  When his wife and children beg him to run away, he refuses.  Like Socrates, he stands on his beliefs, stating that God knows he is really innocent.  In contrast to Harper Lee's victim, who is not fleshed out and quietly disappears from the story, leaving all the glory to Atticus Finch, Goodman's Jeremiah emerges as a powerful partner, with Pastor Davis, in the role of the town's moral compass. 

I loved the tension and contrast created by Theodora's parents.  Her father, the pastor, insists that violence is not the way to bring about social change, that it's God who must transform human hearts.  Her mother disagrees, taking a more active part in bringing about this change.  She is an early activist in what would become the civil rights movement, decades later.  

This novel is richly-detailed, even though it's written in sparse, sharply poetic prose.  At the risk of sounding redundant, I must point out once again that I feel it's much too short.  The story seems to demand more expansion, a larger canvas to spread out upon.  I would love it if Goodman decided to write a much longer version!  I suppose that her expertise at short-story writing has had an influence in the production of this, her first novel, which I would really call a novella.  

Another small problem I found with the story was the passage in which Theodora and Glorybe take Theodora's kayak out into the rain-swollen river.  I don't think a kayak would have survived such a trip wholly intact, nor would its occupants have emerged unharmed.

All quibbles aside, I truly believe that this novel is a gem not to be missed!  The characters and events touched my heart, impressing themselves indelibly on my mind.  I know I will be re-reading this one, and more than once, too!  


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